20 years after the tornado, the legacy of Archbishop Neale continues – Catholic Standard

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Memories remain vivid of the F4 tornado that swept through La Plata, Maryland 20 years ago in April 2002, when the storm tore down the Archbishop Neale school building, but luckily struck on a Sunday evening when it was n There were no students or staff.

“It was terrifying. It was very scary. At first we didn’t know what to do,” said Cathy Robinson, who was teaching first grade at the school at the time.

Her entire classroom was destroyed, but somehow a statue of Mary remained, standing on a shelf.

Now teaches fourth grade and in his 28e year at Archbishop Neale School, Robinson recalled how “we all got together (then). Within a week we were up and running. That spring, the school moved its classes to rooms at First Baptist Church in La Plata and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in White Plains.

Then that fall of 2002, students from Archbishop Neale School took classes in modular buildings near the Church of the Sacred Heart in La Plata, and the land was laid for a new school, at 75e anniversary of its founding.

The new Archbishop Neale School opened in January 2004, a modern two-story building with reinforced construction to help withstand storms, 20,000 square feet larger than the old school. The new school included a library, media center, full-size gymnasium, and larger classrooms. An army of volunteers, including many parents, helped move furniture around the building and paint its walls, just as they salvaged materials from the wreckage of the old school building after the tornado.

“We were simply amazed by the beauty and the space. We were overwhelmed,” Robinson said.

On a recent matinee at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, Md., Father Scott Woods, the pastor of nearby Sacred Heart Parish who serves as the school’s administrator, walks with the student kindergarten Gabriel Cruz. (CS Photo/Ashley Barnas)

This year marks 95 years of Archbishop Neale Schoole anniversary. It was founded as Sacred Heart School in La Plata in 1927, a year after a tornado killed 13 children at a public school there, including some Sacred Heart parishioners. No public storm warning system existed then. The school opened with 28 students and was run by four Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

In 1952 it was renamed Archbishop Neale School, named after the second Archbishop of Baltimore who was from nearby Port Tobacco, Maryland and served from 1815 to 1817. Over the years, the regional school serving several parishes in the Charles County expanded to include a high school which later closed in 1976.

Father Matt Siekierski, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and administrator of Archbishop Neale School when the tornado hit, led efforts to build the new school until his death a year later. His work was continued by Mgr. Karl Chimiak who then became the new pastor. Sister Helene Fee, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who was principal of the school for two decades from 1988, also played a leading role in the reconstruction of the school and took some small children through the hand when it opened its doors. After a legacy of faith and service that spanned 80 years, his religious order left the school in 2007.

Teresa Skinner, who became principal of Archbishop Neale School last year after teaching at Little Flower School in Great Mills, said: ‘There’s a lot of history here.

A special part of the school’s history has been its teachers, many of whom have taught there for decades and sent their children to school. Many of them are also graduates of Archbishop Neale School, as have generations of student families.

“There’s such a sense of community here, and the teachers trust what we’re doing, and they believe in this mission,” Skinner said.

Morning announcements at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata are Father Scott Woods (front left), the school administrator and pastor of Sacred Heart Parish; Teresa Skinner (front right), school principal; and students, left to right center, eighth grader Grace Rison, eighth grader Brody Clemons and eighth grader Rylan Bastain. (CS Photo/Ashley Barnas)

This year, Archbishop Neale opened with 282 students in its kindergarten through eighth grade classes, with 20 more students than last year.

The principal noted the importance of the chapel with a tabernacle located near the school’s front door. “Jesus Christ is ever present,” she said, noting the painted wording above the entrance hall near the main stairwell, which reads “…Christ is the reason for this school”, and also says that Christ is a teacher in his classrooms, a model for his teachers and an inspiration to his students.

“Teachers, they live this (message),” she said. She added, “We talk a lot this year about bringing the light of Christ to the world, and that is my hope for our students.”

Father Scott Woods, in his second year as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and administrator for Archbishop Neale, echoed that point, saying the school is marked by “the love of Christ and love for her children, and a real sense of what it means to be a community.

Skinner praised teachers for their resilience and flexibility during the pandemic, as schools transitioned from virtual to hybrid and back to in-person learning with safety precautions. “Catholic schools in southern Maryland have been really successful in sustaining education,” she said.

Expressing pride in her school, she said, “It’s a very special place. During a walk around the school, she pointed to the library, where last year’s students borrowed 6,845 books. She also noted that the gymnasium floor was donated by the original Capital Center, where the Washington Bullets once played.

Archbishop Neale School has just been equipped with 35 new Dell laptops, thanks to a technology grant from a foundation.

Mary Ellen Howard, a computer teacher and director of admissions at the school, noted that she taught the mother of one of her new kindergarten students. Parents who have attended the school before and are now sending their children there “recognize the exceptional education, support, love and dedication of the teachers and staff”, she said.

First graders recite the Pledge of Allegiance at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, Maryland. (CS Photo/Ashley Barnas)

Kindergarten teacher Beth Sine graduated from Archbishop Neale School in the late 1970s and is in her 13e year of teaching there. “It really laid the foundation for my Catholic faith,” she said. “…The school is wonderful. We feel like at home. You can say God is here.

Describing her young students, she said: “They are so much fun. They like school. They love God and they love each other.

Years ago, Carolyn Bowman sent her two children to Archbishop Neale School, and after starting to volunteer as a parent, in 2003 she became a teaching assistant there, and she continues in that role with pre-kindergarten for 3 and 4 year olds. students.

“I’m lucky to be part of this school,” she says. I love children and I love my job. She said she sent her children there because she wanted a Catholic education for them, and now “I’m able to give that to others.”

Bowman said witnessing the opening of the new school in 2004 was “awesome. We were already a Catholic school family… We were all walking together after the tragedy.

Archbishop Neale, science teacher Joelle Civil, also experienced the school as a parent, having sent his two children there. Now she teaches Earth and space science to sixth graders; life sciences to seventh graders, who learn about cells, genetics and biodiversity; and physical sciences – chemistry and physics – to eighth graders. Students complete science projects during the year, and community members who work in science-related fields talk to students about their careers.

“I insist on the fact that science is in everything. Science is everywhere,” she said.

Christopher Williams, a seventh grader at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, talks to Joelle Civil, who teaches science to students in grades six through eight. (CS Photo/Ashley Barnas)

Margee Baldus, who works as a medical technician at the school, graduated there in 1980, her husband is a member of the class of 1976 and they have a daughter who is now in eighth grade there. Recalling the tornado’s impact on the La Plata community, she said, “It was shocking to see everything flattened out.”

Baldus said he was very sad to see his old school destroyed, but added: “We now have a beautiful school. It’s updated.

During the reconstruction of Archbishop Neale School, Laura Schreyer was president of the Home and School Association. All six of her children have attended school, with the youngest now in fourth grade. Now she teaches language arts at the school and is in her sixth year working there.

“School has been such a blessing in my children’s lives,” she said, noting that her eldest daughter is now a Dominican from Nashville, Sister Anna Maria.

Describing what makes Archbishop Neale School special, Schreyer said, “It’s family… Our community has been tried by fire. We are so lucky to be here and going strong.

A display case at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata includes remnants of the old school building that was destroyed by a tornado in April 2002, including this brick. (CS Photo/Ashley Barnas)

The school displays a brick and other remnants of its old building, including artwork by then-fifth grader Adriana Gutrick. His drawing was blown over the Chesapeake Bay by the tornado and landed in the front yard of a home more than 100 miles away.

His mother, Marcia Gutrick, is a resource teacher at Archbishop Neale School and has worked there for 22 years. Gutrick, who also teaches fourth and fifth grade social studies, sent her two children to school, and she highlighted how, in difficult times, Archbishop Neale School continues to give children “a foundation of faith solid that will allow them to navigate this world.”

She added, “We are here to stay, to continue with the legacy of a strong education.”


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