Longtime principal to retire after
15-year tenure at Attleboro school

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — Although she’s planned countless Open House sessions during her tenure as principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Attleboro, this year’s event on Sunday, January 27 is going to be somewhat bittersweet for Sister Mary Jane Holden, C.P., as she recently announced her plans to retire at the end of the academic year in June.


“I’m looking forward to retirement,” Sister Mary Jane recently told The Anchor. “But I’m looking forward to winding down a bit. I’m not saying I won’t do anything — I’ll still have responsibilities to my religious community — but it won’t be the daily grind and I think it’s time that we get someone new, someone with new ideas to move the school forward. We’re in a good place now, and we want to keep it that way. We want to withhold the reputation that we have.”

Much of that well-earned reputation can be credited to Sister Mary Jane, who has helmed the vibrant Catholic school for the past 15 years.

A member of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion religious order — more commonly known as the Passionist Sisters — Sister Mary Jane recently reflected on her accomplishments over the years and, in particular, her time in Attleboro.

“I enjoyed teaching and I’ve enjoyed administration,” she said. “But looking back, I think what’s foremost in your mind is the most recent (assignment), so that would be my time here at St. John’s.”

Founded and based in Manchester, England, the Passionist Sisters have a provincial house in Rhode Island, where Sister Mary Jane resides, and are involved in everything from education to parish work, from retreat work to pastoral care. Before coming to the Fall River Diocese, Sister Mary Jane taught at schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and for a brief time she even managed a section-eight elderly housing facility where her mother was living.

“I went into housing just by accident, but that helped me with my (job here), because I left education for a time,” Sister Mary Jane said. “My mother was living in a building and the manager knew me and she asked me if I could help for the summer. That summer turned into a few years, but I learned a lot and I was able to bring that experience with me.”

While she’s justifiably proud of the reputation that St. John the Evangelist School has earned in recent years, Sister Mary Jane is quick to point out that she’s had a lot of help along the way.

“We do have a good reputation and I think mostly it’s because everybody works together,” she said. “Any success that we’ve achieved, we achieved it together. I mean the faculty has been so responsive and willing to move along as things have changed. They’ve embraced technology and everything else as we try new things and when we saw the need for the addition to the school, the parents got together and we were able to pay that off within three years, without having to borrow a cent from the diocese. It’s just a wonderful community of people who help out and I couldn’t say enough about all of the people who have shared in the responsibility for the success of the school. It’s been marvelous.”

With a current enrollment of 253 students in pre-K through grade eight — an estimated 80 percent of whom are members of St. John the Evangelist Parish — it’s a rare Catholic school success story at a time when others are struggling to keep their numbers up and their doors open.

“Of course, we do accept students who aren’t parishioners and we welcome them,” Sister Mary Jane said. “But I think it’s a unique thing to many parish schools and I think that’s very good. And we already have quite a few applications for next year, so we’re very happy about that. Whoever takes over, they will have a pretty full school.”

There have been so many high points during her tenure at St. John the Evangelist, but Sister Mary Jane will always be the most proud of the new wing that was added onto the school in 2013 containing a library media center, new music room, and technological upgrades like Apple TVs and Smartboards in every classroom and iPads for all the students.

“We really saw the need and we were fortunate enough that we were able to do it,” Sister Mary Jane said. “I think we probably could use another (addition) at this point, because there’s always a need for more room for groups and classes. But I think I’m more proud of the fact that we were able to all work together. It was a fantastic experience to be able to work with such generous and giving people — and I mean, I’m not just saying this, I’m sincere about it. It was the willingness of everybody to join in — the faculty, even the students — to do whatever they could.”

The six-year-old addition also provided a new entrance and reception area to the school and a dedicated chapel, where the children and faculty can drop in to adore our Eucharistic Lord.

“Every Tuesday we have Mass and that’s important,” Sister Mary Jane said. “So years from now, I don’t know what (the students) will say, but they’ll always remember that they went to Mass and hopefully it will get them to participate more often.”

While academics and test scores are paramount to a school’s success, Sister Mary Jane firmly believes a school’s “Catholic identity” is just as important, if not more so.

“It’s beyond the academics, you know, it’s the fact that we’re Catholic, that we represent the Church,” she said. “We participate in a lot of things and community service programs. We collect a lot for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and they let us know when their coffers are low and when they need certain things. We collect peanut butter at Christmas, and provide lunches that they need, so the children are very willing to give.”

Sister Mary Jane also takes great pride in the fact that many graduates from St. John the Evangelist continue their Catholic education at places like the nearby Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro.

“I’d say about 75 to 85 percent of our graduates go on to Feehan,” she said. “So a lot of them feel if they come here, they’ll get a good basis to get into Feehan. And we work closely with Bishop Feehan and I always check with them to see if our students are well-prepared, because they represent us when they go there. But I think it’s worked out well.”

As someone who has devoted the bulk of her ministry to Catholic education, Sister Mary Jane hopes schools like St. John the Evangelist will continue to provide unique learning opportunities for students in the future.

“I don’t want to see Catholic education out-price itself,” she said. “That would be a very difficult thing and you can almost see it happen. But I think if the Catholic schools can consolidate and make stronger schools — maybe fewer, but stronger — then I think there’s still an opportunity for people to take advantage of that, with the help of whoever is donating the funds towards helping these children. It’s a sacrifice for parents to send their kids to Catholic school today, and it’s so cost-prohibitive.”

To that end, Sister Mary Jane said the Diocese of Fall River, under Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha’s leadership, is “really making great strides to try and provide for those people who need assistance.”

“Bishop da Cunha and the diocesan school office have been able to get money funded to give scholarships to students,” Sister Mary Jane said. “They also have this program, it’s in its second year now, where teachers in Catholic schools can get money for their own children who want to go to a Catholic school. So I mean those are the little things that show we appreciate the teachers for what they do. We can’t always pay them what they deserve, so any other kindness that can be bestowed on them is a show of appreciation and respect.”

With the search for a new principal already underway, Sister Mary Jane plans to finish out the school year and has agreed to stay on to assist with the transition.

“I think they hope to have somebody in place by May 1, or something like that,” she said. “So I’m hoping that we can work together to transition over.”

As for her plans this summer and beyond, she’s maintaining a wait-and-see attitude.

“If something interesting comes up, I’ll have to see,” she said. “I’m just going to wait and see what the Lord brings me. If nothing, then I’ll just enjoy my time.”

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