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Melrose’s St. Mary school marks its 100th

First graders Jada Edmark and Trevor McDonough. First graders Jada Edmark and Trevor McDonough. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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MELROSE — Andrew Vo, a first-grader at St. Mary of the Annunciation School, is pretty sure he would have to live a long time if he were to grow up to be as old as his 100-year-old Catholic school.

“Oh,’’ said the 6-year-old, nattily dressed in a tie and blue knit school vest. “It would be, like, a real long time.’’

He got some help from Graham MacDonald — a 6-year-old math whiz who already likes “agelebra,’’ (sic) which grownups call “algebra.’’

“Ninety-four,’’ MacDonald said, triumphantly. “That’s how many more years we’d have to be.’’

The St. Mary 100th anniversary has been marked by lessons in math, memories, and milestones. The parish school, the only Catholic school in Melrose, has been celebrating all school year, starting last fall with a Mass honoring the sisters of the Society of the Holy Child, the religious order that founded the school on Myrtle Street in 1909.

“The sisters are our legacy,’’ said Cynthia Boyle, who is the only the second lay principal at St. Mary. “We wanted to celebrate our rich tradition, academic excellence, and faith formation of the past 100 years.’’

On Sunday, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will celebrate the 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary of the Annunciation Church to recognize the school’s centennial. After Mass, kids, teachers, and parishioners will proceed from the church to Memorial Hall on Main Street, where the school’s Irish step dancers and tin whistle players will perform. As on most special occasions, the St. Mary school banner will be front and center.

“We have been part of Melrose for 100 years,’’ said Boyle, noting Irish-American families have a long history at the school. “We want to celebrate with the community, and let people know we are here.’’

Retired mayor James Milano, who is also 100 years old, didn’t go to St. Mary. But second-graders in Melrose public schools were allowed during the school day to attend religion class at St. Mary. “I remember going there and the nuns had the black habits,’’ Milano said.

Milano, who still plays the organ at the 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday at St. Mary, plans to attend the anniversary Mass and procession. “I can still walk,’’ he said with a chuckle. “St. Mary’s has been very good for Melrose. It’s a wonderful community and school . . . I always saw them as a partner in education here.’’

At the school, the number 100 is a point of pride at every turn, from classroom bulletin boards decorated with old photos, to posters decorating the school hallways, proclaiming “100 Things Second Graders Love About St. Mary’s.’’ In September, the Student Council gave each teacher a pair of glittering party eye glasses made into the shape of the number 100. “We always give teachers a welcome-back gift,’’ said Luke Amato, 14, an eighth-grader who is the Student Council president. “We thought the glasses would be a fun way to start our 100th year.’’

The school’s milestone comes amid challenging times for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston. Falling enrollment, tight finances, and fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal weakened a once thriving network. In recent years, a sweeping effort to strengthen the system has led to the closing, or consolidation, of some parish schools, particularly in urban areas.

Salem bid farewell last June to the 117-year-old St. Joseph School, a city school where a low-income population could not afford tuition. In Lawrence, the 104-year-old St. Patrick School and Our Lady of Good Counsel, a 90-year-old parish school that also served Methuen, have merged after each could no longer go it alone. In September, the two schools will open as the new Lawrence Catholic Academy.

St. Mary is among a crop of suburban Catholic schools with stable enrollment, financial support, and strong academics. The school has 380 students enrolled in prekindergarten to Grade 8. The school, where tuition averages $4,500 per student, draws 93 percent of its students from Melrose. School leaders have invested in technology, revamped the reading curriculum, and created after-school enrichment, such as Irish step dancing lessons. On standardized tests, St. Mary performs above the national average, scoring in the 75th percentile, according to data collected by the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office.

“It’s very strong academically,’’ said William McKersie, associate superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “Their scores are consistent. . . . They score well above the average for schools in the archdiocese.’’

Curriculum and professional development for teachers, along with strong leadership, has helped St. Mary prosper academically, McKersie said.

“Leadership is very important in a Catholic school,’’ McKersie said. “They have put a real emphasis on professional development for teachers.’’

The 30-member faculty includes a mix of new hires and veteran teachers, some of whom are alumni. “I wanted to teach in my home parish, to give back to the children,’’ said Mark Flint, a teacher at the school for 26 years and a 1974 graduate.

Mary Lou Johnson, who has taught at the school for 35 years, is also a graduate “I came to volunteer in the kindergarten and I’m still here,’’ said Johnson, who graduated from both the school, and the former St. Mary High School for girls, which closed in 1970. Her children, and now her grandchildren, attend St. Mary, she said.

“It’s a family here,’’ said Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher. “There is a strong sense of community.’’

Most of the 29 eighth-graders who will graduate in June will head off to Catholic high schools. The class earned a record $355,000 in scholarship money from various sources.

“I’ve gone to St. Mary’s my whole life,’’ said Maura Buckley, 14, who will attend Arlington Catholic High School in the fall. “We did a lot of community service this year. I like that about Catholic school.’’

Others plan to stay put at St. Mary for a good long time. In fact, first-grader Emily Chase can’t wait for the school to turn 101. “I’m going to second grade,’’ she said confidently. “In second grade, you get First Communion.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.

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