SOMERS POINT — While some Catholic schools struggle to keep their doors open and their enrollment numbers up, St. Joseph Regional School is marking its 60th year in the community with 408 students.
The school began in 1958 when the nuns of Sisters of Saint Joseph order, Mother John Ignatius and Sister Helen Patrick of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, started the school, according to Carla Marrone, school advancement director. The Acme in Somers Point allowed the founders to use some space until the school on Harbor Lane was completed, according to language arts teacher Sylvia McFadden.
The doors opened in 1958 with 46 students in first grade and 35 in second. Grades were added in the subsequent years as the school continued to flourish. Students originally were from Linwood, Somers Point and Egg Harbor Township. With Catholic schools such as Blessed Sacrament and St. James closed in Margate and Ventnor, St. Peter’s in Pleasantville and St. Augustine in Ocean City, St. Joseph now draws students from around the region.
The diamond anniversary of St. Joe’s started Friday morning with a visit from Camden Diocese Bishop Dennis Sullivan and a concelebrated Mass. Students were a big part of the Mass as they carried colorful banners and flags, and did the readings. Sullivan talked with the students, reminding them that what they learn in class is very important but to remember that service to others is a part of learning and a key to future success.
Why the school is so successful just may have something to do with the commitment of the staff and the school families. Several members of the staff are alumni and returned to their roots after graduating from college.
Sharon Wilson is one of those who had choices to go elsewhere, but returning to where her education began made her happiest. A 1985 St. Joseph graduate, Wilson remembered her favorite teacher, Janice Hardy, who she said made everyone in the class want to reach higher and try new things.
Wilson, now a fourth-grade teacher, credits Hardy with instilling the desire to be a teacher. Wilson and her siblings attended St. Joe's, as did her children. She has been teaching for 26 years.
Asked if a Catholic education is relevant today, Wilson was emphatic. “I really do believe that being able to infuse our every moment of the day with faith helps the students to be more accepting of others, more patient with others, while of course developing their own relationship with God. It helps to create compassionate leaders for the future who not only master reading, writing, and math skills, but who know how to problem-solve, work with others, and give back to society in positive faith-filled ways.”
Bill McKeon is a mechanical engineer in Philadelphia who began his education at St. Joe's, a member of the first class to attend the school all eight years. McKeon said the school is still thriving after three generations because they have blended important ingredients to success: support of teachers, families and the principal working together; great education; and fundraising that helps with tuition, making it an affordable option to the public schools in the area. McKeon pointed to the discipline and structure the students receive as tools for success in high school, college and life.
Sylvia McFadden is a 22-year Catholic-school veteran with 18 years in the third grade, but this year she is in the middle school and works with 117 students every day. McFadden said St. Joe's educates the whole child and has been a choice for families of all faiths, not only Catholics, for six decades.
“We have been a constant in the many changing trends in education surrounding our school community over the years that brings families great comfort in knowing our values have stood the test of time,” McFadden said.
Community member and CEO of Shore Medical Center David Hughes is on the Board of Directors at St. Joseph. His wife, Patricia, is an alumna who led him to get involved at the school. “St. Joe’s commitment to providing a quality education is reflected in its students, who have gone on to be leaders in our community and throughout our nation,” said Hughes.
Michele Zinckgraf is another alumna who returned to her roots to find happiness in the classroom. A 1989 graduate, she worked at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia but found her calling in teaching. She is a preschool teacher at St Joe's and said it was the fond memories and a true connection to the students and school family that has brought her a rewarding career.
St. Joseph Regional School Principal is Janice Fipp. Formerly she was the principal of Northfield Community Elementary School and superintendent of the school district before retiring in 2014. Fipp said when she retired she went out to lunch with the girls, walked on the beach every day and traveled.
“But there was something missing, and I was not quite sure what it was’” Fipp said.
As she had throughout her life, when unsure of which way to go, she turned to God.
“I went to 8:30 a.m. Mass daily at St. Gianna, and I actually asked God to lead me to a meaningful way to spend my days. I asked and I prayed and I listened. Next thing I knew, I was knocking on the door of Saint Joseph Regional School asking if they needed a substitute. I loved the environment from the moment I entered. The students were lovely, interested and eager to be engaged in learning.”
When former Principal Ted Pugliesi took a position elsewhere, Fipp was asked to fill in as an interim principal and later accepted the role to lead St. Joseph’s full time.
“I said 'yes' because I was working in an environment where an outstanding education was offered, and it was offered in a faith-based environment, where we worked with students to develop their individual relationships with God and with the Catholic Church,” Fipp said.
"That's why we are 60 Years Strong, because even in 2018, when our world is changing so rapidly in so many ways, good and bad, there are many Catholics who still insist on developing a stronger and stronger relationship with God," Fipp said.