WILMINGTON — Someone else is going to have to open the doors at St. Elizabeth School from now on.
After 46 years in Catholic education — all but one at St. Elizabeth School — M.J. Quill is stepping aside. A neighborhood resident, she was often the first one in the building, arriving around 6 a.m.
Quill would have spent that other year at St. E’s, but her sister got in the way. When she graduated from the University of Delaware in 1975, she applied to St. Elizabeth but was turned down. Her sister, Emily, three years older, was a teacher there, and the Diocese of Wilmington would not allow relatives to work at the same school. Jobs in public schools were hard to come by at that time, but she was offered a position at Holy Spirit School in New Castle.
At that point a year later, there was an opening at St. Elizabeth, and this time she was able to go. Her sister stopped teaching to start a family and never taught again, Quill said.
“God has a way of making things work out for us,” she said.
It was a homecoming for Quill whose given name is Mary Jean, but no one calls her that. She grew up two blocks from St. Elizabeth. Her parents were married at the church, and her mother and some siblings all went to the parish school. Quill received all her sacraments at St. Elizabeth, but, strangely enough, she attended Ursuline Academy through elementary and high school, as did an elder sister.
“The reason I went to Ursuline was one of my father’s sisters was an Ursuline sister. In his family, it was tradition for the girls to go to Ursuline,” she said.
Although she wanted to major in history, Quill started out studying medical technology at Delaware because she believed it was a more marketable field. She also did not want to be compared to her sister, who was in education. But one semester of medical technology was enough.
“I hated it,” she said. “I just had that awakening that I was rejecting education for the wrong reason. So, I switched my major to education. It turned out well because my sister ended up teaching maybe two years.”
She thought she’d be in Catholic school for a few years, then move to a public school.
“Forty-six years later, here I am. It’s a vocation. I couldn’t imagine teaching in a place where I could not talk about my faith, talk about God. I’ve loved it so much. I can look back, and I never regret it,” she said.
At St. Elizabeth, she taught fourth grade for a long time, and for many years she divided her teaching responsibilities with administration, as she was also the assistant principal. She returned full-time to the classroom several years ago. When St. Elizabeth went to a lower and upper school, she taught seventh and eighth grades, but she also added a class with high school freshman.
Quill is single and does not have children of her own, so her students are like her family. She is a familiar sight at plays and other performances, and also at sporting events. She expects that to continue. One of the joys of her life is running into former students outside of school.
“You know what Delaware’s like — two degrees of separation from anyone. I still think of them as 9 years old or 12 years old, and here, they’re lugging their children with them. I just love reminiscing with them. It’s a lot of fun. A lot of times they’ll come back and visit,” she said.
Last year, Quill heard from a man who was in her first fourth-grade class at Holy Spirit School.
“He sent me a very long email about how I was his favorite teacher and what he’s doing now, and his children,” she recalled. “That’s just so exciting as a teacher when you get kids who reach back to you. Especially when they say that was my favorite year, or you were my favorite teacher. Those are the blessings.”
St. Elizabeth was staffed for generations by the Benedictine Sisters, and their charism influenced her teaching philosophy.
“One of the rules of St. Benedict is ‘Listen with the ear of your heart.’ That has just stuck with me my entire teaching career. That’s been my guiding principle in my teaching and in my relationships with my students, with the parents, with my colleagues. ‘I see you. I hear you. I’m there for you,’” Quill said.
“You may not walk out of my room and 20 years from now remember the underlying causes of World War I, but I hope you remember that you were in a safe place, and that you loved learning, and you developed your character because that’s our hope for the future.”
Some staffers at St. Elizabeth are former students, including Collin LeNoir, Catilin Papili and Edward Graney. She grew up just a few blocks from St. Elizabeth, near Kevin Scott, a longtime school employee, and Joe Papili, who is the school president. She still lives in her childhood home, having purchased her parents’ house.
She joked with a nephew in Massachusetts that she would graduate when he did, which was two years ago. She decided she wasn’t ready to step away, but now, at age 68, the time has come.
Quill said she will miss the classroom and the daily contact with her students, but not the meetings and all the technology they have to master. She is looking forward to reading for pleasure and sleeping past 5 a.m., although she said that last part is only coming gradually. She also has some television and streaming to catch up on since she was rarely awake after 10 p.m.
She has let the school know she is available to substitute and has renewed her teaching certification for another five years.
Her future plans include trips to Acadia National Park in Maine and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. She also wants to explore the area between New York City and Washington, D.C. The East Coast, she said, “is just dripping with history. You can never go to Washington, D.C., enough, but maybe that’s just me.”
For many years, she was a confirmation teacher at St. Elizabeth Church, and she would be happy to do that again. She also promised her students that she would still be a familiar face.
“I told Joe (Papili) I’m going to need graduation tickets for the next six years.”