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When Sister Colleen Therese Smith first arrived at St Rose of Lima School for the 2014-15 academic year, she asked room after room of students about her new school; students resoundingly told her the school is a family.
She felt that same sense of a bond, and one of her first efforts at the school was creating a buddy program to foster more connections between grade levels, enhancing the family feeling.
“The parents tell me it is their favorite part of the school,” said Sister Colleen.
As Sister Colleen spoke in her office on June 25, she had less than a handful of days left as the school’s principal. She will now serve as the director of mission advancement for the United States province for her community, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus based in Hamden. Sister Colleen said she will be working to promote the group’s ministries, including education, work with immigrants, and work with poor communities in the country and in the group’s missions, particularly in Haiti.
“I feel very passionately about the ministry that we do. For me to do this development work, to ask for support, while it seems it should be a challenge to ask for money, I am asking for children who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance at all,” said Sister Colleen, focusing on her future work.
Bardhyl Gjoka, who left the position of principal at St Aloysius School in New Canaan, began serving as the principal at St Rose on July 1.
“He’s going to be great. He is a very strong leader. I know the school will continue to soar with him because he is an excellent administrator,” said Sister Colleen, adding that she has known Mr Gjoka for four years.
Sister Colleen said she was “very much aware” that Newtown was a community suffering from trauma when she arrived. She worked with the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team, “and I learned so much in that first year.”
“Really, what was most important was to try to normalize the school experience,” Sister Colleen said, reflecting on that time.
Sister Colleen took note of what times of the day and which days caused anxiety for students. She then tried to “rewrite those memories” in big and small ways. A pep rally was held one day in the parking lot: The whole school danced for about 45 minutes. It helped students feel comfortable, she explained.
“We did a lot of crazy things,” she laughed, remembering all the ways the staff worked to foster a sense of happiness and security for students. A flash-mob of faculty at an assembly stands out in her memory, “just to make school fun.”
She also has fond memories of working with school staff and school and community members, particularly Monsignor Robert Weiss. Over the school years, Sister Colleen shared, the pair offered pranks back and forth.
Starting With Prayer
“Overwhelmingly my favorite time was when we went to Mass every Friday morning as a school community,” said Sister Colleen.
Every week, Sister Colleen said, she would talk to the students at Mass about “whatever we need to leave behind,” giving thanks, and starting over the next week.
“I think they really took that to heart,” Sister Colleen reflected.
Starting the day with prayer is important, she said. When she arrived at the school, there was a tradition of having the principal say a prayer over the loudspeaker.
“When you can’t see the community with whom you are praying, it somewhat loses something,” said Sister Colleen. “… That second year, I started that we all meet in the morning in the Gathering Hall.”
Eventually, students also shared morning announcements at the morning gathering.
“It just felt more like a community,” said Sister Colleen. “… It just seemed like we started as one family together.”
Eighth grade traditions, like trips to New York City at Christmastime, have made some of her other favorite memories. Since arriving at the school, Sister Colleen has started different programs and she was at the helm when the school created efforts and events, like the creation of the annual Hands & Hearts in the Community Service Award/Tuition Assistance Benefit Dinner. Sister Colleen said she is proud of introducing the service component of this benefit dinner into the school.
“My intention was to help the students learn,” she reflected. “I think the most important lesson in life is that the secret of real happiness, real joy, is in selflessness and giving to others.”
It was challenging at first to find age-appropriate hands-on service opportunities, but Sister Colleen said the school staff found ways to incorporate community service projects.
“It is helping them to form a habit of service,” she said, “because eventually they will realize this is the key. There are so many lessons that we teach them, but I think that is one of the most important [lessons] that we can teach them.”
Be The Hands And Heart
The Hands & Hearts in the Community Service Award/Tuition Assistance Benefit Dinner also gave the school a way to have role models highlighted for the students. Monsignor Weiss, former First Selectman Pat Llodra, and Todd Ingersoll, president and CEO of Ingersoll Automotive, were all honored with the Monsignor Robert E. Weiss Hands & Hearts in the Community Award since the program began. Each of the awardees were celebrated at the school and introduced to students.
“Each of them really made an impact on the children,” said Sister Colleen, adding that the benefit dinner offers a window into what the school is about for the community, and it allows community members to help support the school’s tuition assistance program.
Sister Colleen said it was a highlight of her career to have her vision of the program “take off” thanks to a committee that “brought it to life.”
Working with the staff has been wonderful over her time at St Rose, she shared.
“This has been the most outstanding staff I have worked with, and that has been a blessing to me,” said Sister Colleen, adding that she frequently went home and thanked God for particular staff members.
The staff show incredible dedication, she said.
“They love their students, and they will do whatever it takes to help their students be successful. That was just amazing to me,” said Sister Colleen.
She is thankful to the community and school families.
“Even though I came to serve here, I received so much more in blessings and support,” said Sister Colleen, adding that she found Newtown to be “extremely friendly, and really, I felt embraced by the town.”
She also said she is thankful for her “wonderful relationship” with the Newtown Board of Education.
When asked if she had a message she would like to share with her students, she said, “Continue to be the hands and heart of Christ for others, continue to work hard, and allow themselves to be stretched. I look forward to coming back to visit to watch them grow into wonderful young adults.”
The students at St Rose of Lima are gifted in many ways.
“They are going to be very successful,” she said.