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Key West Catholic school struggles to reopen after hurricane


Catholic News Service

KEY WEST, Fla. — Robert Wright, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, reluctantly left town before Hurricane Irma made its historic landfall, knowing it wouldn’t be easy getting back to Florida’s southernmost tip later on.

Debris is seen Sept. 16 outside the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

Wright drove the Overseas Highway north toward the Florida mainland, braving 50-mph winds, to join his wife and five children who had evacuated to a relative’s home in Lakeland in Central Florida. Wright’s wife, Jessica, is a sixth-generation Conch, or Key West native.

“I had at first decided to stay and ride it out, but my wife wasn’t happy about that, and we have five children,” said Wright, principal of the school since 2013. “So I drove overnight to Lakeland.”

Ironically, Irma’s path shifted somewhat more inland, knocking out power where Wright and 10 family members huddled in a duplex for several days.

Wright’s fears about returning were well-founded. County officials only began letting residents head back to the lower Keys and Key West early in the morning Sept. 17.

Some days before that, Wright finally found a way back to Key West through a friend who works with a humanitarian aviation agency in Lakeland called Aero Bridge, which was flying post-hurricane relief and supplies to Summerland Key, near Key West. (The main airport in Key West was open only to military and governmental traffic at the time.)

He learned about the flight the night of Sept. 13, and, leaving his family in Lakeland, he boarded the flight the next morning along with his 120-pound dog and a couple of cases of Gatorade.

“It was a humbling sight to fly over the Middle Keys around Marathon Key, seeing the devastation,” Wright told the Florida Catholic newspaper. “I got into Key West, and my first order of business was to find fuel for my car.”

Wright found gas at a marina where his family keeps a boat. He also procured some drinking water, then set out for the basilica’s school. He spent six hours doing a full damage assessment, and spoke to the insurance adjusters and Miami archdiocesan staff working on a cleanup plan.

He contracted with a local company to begin the cleanup process beginning Sept. 18. He set Sept. 25 as the target for a full school reopening.

Meanwhile, the school began operating a half-day of free day care for area youngsters whose families didn’t evacuate and needed a safe place for their children while they recover from the storm. An estimated 8,000 residents remained behind.

“My goal is to open up the school as soon as possible, and I think that is one of the first things a community needs to return to a sense of normalcy,” Wright said.

With some 300 students, most of whom evacuated with their families in advance of Hurricane Irma, the Basilica School of St. Mary Star has been educating Key West children since 1868. The school enrolls students from prekindergarten (age 3) through eighth grade and stands next to the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, in the heart of Key West.

Key West was not ready for an immediate, rapid return of residents. As of Sept. 18, water service was being rationed, available only four hours each day. Cellphone service was only recently restored, electricity remained out and gasoline was in short supply.

Wright also was visiting members of his staff, faculty and student families who were busy cleaning up homes. His own house suffered some minor damage, and he asked his family to stay in Central Florida until conditions improve.

Meanwhile, he said, Key West has been transformed from a beautiful resort to a beautiful state of neighbor helping neighbor, as restaurants offer free food to locals and people pitch in to clean up the island.

“It’s really is neat to see people dig deep and start to serve others,” he said. “Amidst the chaos there is great charity at work. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself in a bad situation. But when you see the generosity and care of neighbors, it’’s a very pleasant feeling, and it takes your mind off the road ahead.”

It will be months, even years, before the island returns to what it once was, Wright said. Locals point out that 2005’s Hurricane Wilma actually brought Key West more catastrophic flooding than Irma, which will be remembered by locals for its Category 4 winds.

“I have families asking how long this will take and wondering should they enroll elsewhere,” Wright said. He believes the city of Key West in general will lose some students as their families relocate after suffering heavy damage to their homes.

Many faculty and staff of the basilica’s school, however, were waiting for the Key West airport to open to commercial flights to return. The school has its own water wells, which are now functioning again.

“It’s important to focus on the beauty of charity and progress that these moments bring out,” Wright said. “The charm of the island has shifted from palm trees and tiki huts to the beauty of people serving one another.”


Tracy is a correspondent for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

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The Chainsaw Carmelite: Texas principal knows the joys of serving and severing


Catholic News Service

She inspired many when she rolled up the sleeves of her habit to clean up after Hurricane Irma with a chainsaw.

Carmelite Sister Margaret Ann Laechelin, principal of Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami, holds the chainsaw she used to help clean up debris following Hurricane Irma. (CNS photo/courtesy Sister Margaret Ann)

After the local police department posted a video Sept. 12 on Twitter of Carmelite Sister Margaret Ann Laechelin trimming branches off a fallen tree with a chainsaw, she became an instant hit and a symbol of sorts for the hurricane-ravaged Miami area.

“People are making a big deal about the chainsaw, but I’ve already given my life to God and that’s what brings true joy,” not the fame that came after the airing of the video, said Sister Laechelin in a Sept. 14 phone interview with Catholic News Service.

But the community at Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School, where she is the principal, has been enjoying the fame and the attention it has brought to the suburban Miami Catholic school of 300 students in West Kendall, she said.

“They say ‘Sister, you’re famous. Can I have your autograph?’” she said.

The community needs every bit of levity it can find as it recovers from the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma, which led to the school’s closing because a cooling tower needs to be fixed before students are allowed to return. Inspired by the Carmelite’s example of contributing to the cleanup, families from the school have shown up to help clean around the perimeter, she said.

Though it’s not open for classes, the school has been helping the surrounding community, giving out ice (from its icemaker) and providing a place for others to charge their phones and regroup, Sister Laechelin said.

“There’s such joy in giving,” she said.

And that’s what she was doing when she decided to clear the tree from the road when a police officer, armed with a phone, happened to drive by and filmed her. Though you wouldn’t know it from the video, she had never really used a chainsaw before, but when she was faced with finding a way to clear the tree, she remembered some important advice from her students.

“I had to go on YouTube” to figure it out, she said, “but growing up in Texas, I did a lot of yardwork and my dad taught me to figure things out.”

Though she lives in Florida, she is a member of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles, who also have a community of four women religious in Florida. Via FaceTime, she has been talking to them, easing the concerns of her community in Los Angeles, she said.

“Sisters, we stick together,” she told CNS.

They weren’t surprised at all. she said, by seeing her wielding the chainsaw and said, “That’s Sister Margaret Ann, she never sits back and jumps right in.”

Her family in Texas, however, was in “awe” when they saw her on TV, she said, and told her “I always thought you’d be famous, but not because of a chainsaw.”

The best lesson she can impart on her students from the situation, she said, comes from the Gospel.

“I want them to know that if they see a need, to step in and to help people, to help others, because God didn’t create us to be selfish and to care only for our little world,” she said.

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Local talent fills principal’s role at Good Shepherd School


Dialog reporter


Pileggi started part-time at Perryville school, was given new responsibilities until she now leads school

PERRYVILLE, Md. — When Good Shepherd School found itself needing a new principal following this past school year, the search did not take them too far. The successor was sitting in an office next to the retiring Sharon Hodges – that is, when she wasn’t teaching health and physical education or instructing students in computers.

Jenifer Pileggi has been a “jill” of many trades at the small Cecil County, Md., school, starting nine years ago as a phys-ed teacher two days a week. She used her degree in health education to introduce that into the curriculum as well. The school asked her to add computers to her responsibilities a few years later, adding a third workday to her week. It wasn’t long before she assumed the assistant principal’s role, filling out her five-day week. Read more »

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Oblate Sisters at Mount Aviat raising funds for quake-damaged schools in Ecuador


Dialog reporter

The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales in Childs, Md., are asking for assistance to help rebuild four schools run by their congregation that were damaged April 15 by the magnitude-7.8 earthquake in Ecuador.

The latest death toll is at least 696, although no fatalities or injuries were in those schools, which were not in session at the time.

The schools serve more than 2,800 students. The sisters in Ecuador reported that many pupils, teachers and employees lost homes and family members.

Oblate Sister John Elizabeth Callaghan, principal of Mount Aviat Academy in Childs, reported that a statue of Our Lady of Light remained untouched in the school that was completely leveled. In one of the schools, a sister left the building at 6:45 p.m. to attend Mass, and the building was destroyed 13 minutes later.

“The devastation is almost unimaginable,” Sister John Elizabeth said. “The Sisters continue to sleep on a patio area for fear of the frequent aftershocks. They are trying to get water, food and medicine to their school families who have lost homes and businesses.”

Sister John Elizabeth said the Oblate Sisters have served in Ecuador for 100 years, primarily in education and outreach to the poor. Two of their schools were destroyed, while the other two sustained serious damage, and the congregation will need to depend on the generosity of others to rebuild.

They need donations to do that. The Mount Aviat community is holding fundraisers such as a cake bake featuring homemade liqueur cakes. A Mount Aviat volunteer group called the “Friends” will be selling their homemade macaroni and cheese, and the students and staff will symbolically “walk a mile in their shoes” on the school grounds, Sister John Elizabeth said.

Students at Mount Aviat often raise money to support the Oblate Sisters’ missions. The people of Ecuador gave the school a large tapestry, artwork and Christmas Nativities as a sign of their gratitude, Sister John Elizabeth said.

In addition, the Oblate Sisters have set up a special account to receive and hold donations until their colleagues in Ecuador are ready to accept them. To donate online, go to www.oblatesisters.org. Checks payable to the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales can be sent to 399 Childs Road, Childs, MD 21916.

The Oblate community in Childs feels a connection to those elsewhere, Sister John Elizabeth said.

“The Oblate Sisters serve in nine nations, yet we are a relatively small international congregation. Perhaps that makes it easier to stay connected,” she said.

“One of the schools that was destroyed is named St. Leonie Aviat School and was founded just a year after the sisters opened a kindergarten in the U.S. that eventually became Mount Aviat Academy. We can ask, what if all we worked for in the past 60 years was destroyed in less than 60 seconds?”

On a larger scale, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ relief and development agency, was partnering with local organizations to determine how best to respond. Water, food and emergency shelter are the biggest needs.

Damaged communications networks have made it difficult to get in touch with groups in Ecuador, CRS said.

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Enrollment is first on the ‘to do’ list of St. Mark’s new principal



Dialog Editor


St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington opened with about 650 students in its classrooms this year.

“This community knows this enrollment is not what it was,” Richard Bayhan, St. Mark’s new principal, told The Dialog recently.

He said that as someone new to the campus, it’s hard for him to know exactly why enrollment declined over the years, “but here’s what I would imagine.” Read more »

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Sister Anna May McFeeley dies, served in diocese for 34 years


Staff reporter

 ASTON, Pa. – Sister Anna May McFeeley, a professed member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia for 53 years who ministered in the Diocese of Wilmington for 34 of those, died Jan. 13 in Assisi House. She was 76.

Sister Anna May was the longtime principal of Immaculate Conception School in Elkton, Md., serving there from 1986-2004. She also taught at five schools in the diocese: Holy Angels, Newark (1969-70); St. Paul’s, Wilmington (1971-75); St. Thomas the Apostle, Wilmington (1975-79); Corpus Christi, Elsmere (1979-80); and St. Anthony of Padua, Wilmington (1983-86).

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