When a place has been around 190 years, it’s tempting to say “if these walls could talk,” you would know everything you need to know about it.
Sister Donna Smith has that covered.
It was 1830 when the order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton sent the first Daughters of Charity to Wilmington and began what is now the Cathedral of St. Peter School. A lot has changed, but not the core mission.
“Our main focus is serving the poor,” Sister Donna, school principal, said in an interview earlier this month. “That’s what we do.”
The first site for the sisters was at Third and West streets in the city, but it wasn’t long before they relocated to Sixth and West, where they remain.
Many changes have occurred over the years, but the work they do with the 94 students currently enrolled is the same as what was at the center of their role all those years ago. They are educators there to serve those struggling to make ends meet, Catholic or not.
“That’s what we do,” she said. “These kids need a break.”
Sister Donna and two other sisters work in the school. A total of six live in the Daughters of Charity house on the parish campus.
Many Catholic schools are challenged with rising costs, dwindling enrollment and resource-rich, publicly funded competition. The challenge is extra great at the Cathedral school, but that doesn’t mean it is without hope for the future.
Sister Donna points to a loyal and dedicated faculty as reason No. 1 for success stories that happen at the school.
“The faculty is so committed to what they’re doing here. They’re so committed to these kids and families and what we’re all about. They understand our mission and help us serve the poor.”
She says most faculty members have between 15-35 years of service to the Cathedral school. Sister Donna started as a teacher years ago and has a combined 23 years in different stints at the school.
The Daughters of Charity are a community of women who devote their lives to serving the poorest and most abandoned individuals in today’s society, according to the order’s website. Simple, not solemn vows, as first established by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, are made annually.
In her ongoing efforts to recognize those who have supported the school while attracting others who can help, Sister Donna is working on an idea. The working title is the “Vincentian Wall of Honor.” It would recognize those who have followed in the charitable works of St. Vincent De Paul. She envisions identifying a different person to honor each year, whether it be an alum, benefactor, contributor or others of the many people who have stepped up to help keep the school running.
While there is no lacking for a vision, the future is always uncertain.
“We run on a shoestring, obviously,” she said.
“Hopefully, with the grace of God, we can continue. It’s hard. We make it by on donations and contributors and grants more than we do on tuition,” said Sister Donna, who spends a lot of time making grant applications.
School supporters are accustomed to civic leaders heaping praise on their work, but they struggle to find support via public funding. She knows city and state leaders appreciate the work accomplished at the school, but the school needs more in the way of tangible help.
“They see it, but they’re not helping. They call it ‘a gem in the city’ but they expect it to be here. We need their help and support.”
Still, she’s thankful for the help the school does get.
“Some businesses have been very good to us and very generous.”
As supporters and staff at the Cathedral school move forward, they have little reason to doubt its purpose.
“We know what we’re doing,” Sister Donna said, “and we have the track record to show it.”