By Jeane McNamara
Taking on the responsibility of leading the Little Flower community was at best a complex proposition when I took it on in the spring of 2018. It was a professional and personal gamble. I was ready for something more in my career arc, but recognized that I still had great responsibilities to my family’s well-being and my own. At that time, I had one child about to go to medical school, one launching in college and one starting high school. Little Flower is not exactly around the corner from where I hail in the bustling metropolis of Phoenixville. But having been formed by the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHMs) during my experience as the Academic Dean at Villa Maria Academy High School, and having been involved in the community in Phoenixville, I was drawn to Little Flower for its diversity, its rich history and its deep roots in its own community. A challenge didn’t scare me and neither did a lengthy commute.
To put a finer point on it, from the moment I walked into Little Flower, I heard a call and felt compelled to heed it. There were no visions or miracles, but there was an overwhelming sense that I was meant to be there. I felt genuinely called to preserve the school’s immense legacy amidst a tide of shrinking enrollment, the litany of issues facing urban education in general and the uniquely delicate weave that really holds a school’s cultural fabric together.
So as Catholics, we have our Saints as intercessors. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is Little Flower’s. She got her name at the direction of his Eminence, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, the leader of Catholic Philadelphia in the early part of the 20th century and the impetus behind the meteoric growth of Philadelphia’s Catholic high schools during most of the 20th century. Dougherty had served as the Bishop in Manilla, Philippines. Through his experience there, he developed a tremendous devotion to St. Thérèse, known by most as the Little Flower of Jesus.
The original blueprints for Little Flower show the name Northeast Catholic High School for Girls. It was intended to be the sister school to the already thriving Northeast Catholic High School for Boys (or NORTH, in Catholic Philadelphia parlance), but Cardinal Dougherty made the decision to change the name to Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls. In a strong show of support for the nascent high school, he gave over the gifts he had received for his Golden Jubilee so that Little Flower would be appointed with the finest finishes like grand brass doors, oak bannisters, solid oak doors, impervious walls and terrazzo floors. It stood then as it does today as a shrine to St. Thérèse and a gift to all those who enter. It is said to be the only high school constructed by famed Philadelphia builder Matthew McCloskey, who would later gain fame for constructing the Pentagon and the Rayburn House Office Building and later as the United States’ Ambassador to Ireland, appointed by our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
If we flash back 81 years ago, we can see what Little Flower’s early days were like. The school opened on Sept. 1, 1939 to great fanfare, while on that same day halfway around the world, the Nazis were invading Poland. The first graduating class in 1941 stepped out of the doors of Little Flower at 1000 W. Lycoming St. into World War II. The early graduating classes made immense sacrifices and compromises to finish school – no proms, because their potential dates had gone off to war, early graduations because the girls themselves joined the WACS or the WAVES and responsibilities to God, Country and Family that took them in many directions away from the bliss of high school. Yet, as the alma mater states, “Our Faith is Anchored Here,” and from the earliest days, even if their high school experience was compromised, these women shared a palpable love for this incredible experience of faith formation, academic preparation, bonding and sisterhood, that was like no other. Like their patroness, St. Thérèse, they abundantly loved Little Flower and continued to set a standard of loving it with everything they had in terms of time, talent and tangibles.
Here we stand today, and the current young women of Little Flower will have their high school experience remembered by the asterisk that is the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of all that, the original problems remain: enrollment challenges, competition from the charter schools, the issues that plague urban educators on a normal day, and now the news that there will be other like schools closing at the end of this already unusual school year.
So what’s a girl to do from the leadership seat?
She rolls up her sleeves and gets the work done. She haerkens back to the founding of Little Flower and thinks of its first administrator, Sr. Mary Daniel, SSJ, who opened a Catholic school for girls during a world war and brought it to prominence. She reimagines the possibilities for our young women across all ability levels, races, ethnicities, daughters of cops, bricklayers, electricians, teachers, refugees, politicians, Democrats, Republicans, Eagles/Flyers/Phillies/76ers fans regardless, and she does the work. Along with a team of other brave and extraordinary leaders, they set a course for a strengthened Little Flower that will include the Sr. Kathleen Klarich, RSM, Center for Academic Excellence (named for the longest-serving principal in Little Flower’s history). The Klarich Center will include opportunities for all students to advance across all spaces of the high school experience – socially, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. It is the launchpad by which all young women in Philadelphia and Southeastern Pennsylvania can step on to and create a destiny that will lift them to heights perhaps not thought attainable. In our Catholic vernacular, it is a social justice issue. The young women of the world need Little Flower now, perhaps more than ever. It is our duty, our mission, our calling.
Will Little Flower be able to stay the course in the maelstrom of such upheaval? To this question, only God knows the answer. However, St. Thérèse has guided all the brave leaders of this school for 81 years to have strong spines and soft fronts, as the Buddha would suggest, doing all we do girded with strength, humor, persistence and, above all, abundant love. In addition to providing the utmost care for our current students, Little Flower, like no other school, has an unprecedented (now THIS is a good use of that overused word) way of demonstrating love to their loyal donor base like no other. The loyalty of the LFCHS Alumnae is enviable, especially as most in the educational philanthropic space know that the typical metric is that women do not support their schools at the rates that men do. The minute Little Flower needs a lift, all you have to do is call any one of the thousands of alumnae, their families, their neighbors, their employers, and you get what you need. Within six degrees of everyone in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, someone, somewhere has someone in their family who attended Little Flower. Little Flower is as Philadelphia as having a breakfast of a soft pretzel, a Tastykake and a coffee from Wawa.
What’s a girl to do?
Making it last for the ages, just as I was called to do. ••
Jeane McNamara is president of Little Flower High School.