Teri Dwyer, principal of St. Raphael School in Rockville, receives a hug from students after being named Distinguished Principal of the Year. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Teri Dwyer, principal of St. Raphael School in Rockville, receives a hug from students after being named Distinguished Principal of the Year. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

A rainy Monday morning was made a little bit brighter for the community of St. Raphael School in Rockville, when they found out on Sept. 10 that their principal, Teri Dwyer, had been chosen as the Archdiocese of Washington’s 2018 Distinguished Principal of the Year.

Each year, all of the principals in the archdiocese vote for the person whom they think should be the principal of the year based upon his or her strong faith and leadership qualities.

“We have 93 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, and in those schools we have so many dedicated, hard-working principals,” said Jem Sullivan, the archdiocese’s secretary for education. “The principal of the year is someone who embodies all these strong qualities – and then some.”

The award was announced during the school’s morning prayer service, which the students gather in the church for every day. When Bill Ryan, the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, announced that their principal was the principal of the year, the students and teachers gave her a standing ovation. To celebrate, the students received heart shaped cookies after they left the church.

“Teri is very deserving of the award,” said Ryan. “She lives her faith every single day, she loves her children, loves her teachers, loves the faith, and makes sure each and every day that every child in this school at St. Raphael’s is cared for in the hands of God.”

Upon receiving the award, Dwyer said she was “blown away” and “totally humbled” to be chosen.

Sullivan described Dwyer as a “woman of strong Catholic faith” who is “always striving for academic excellence” and who “brings together St. Raphael’s community in the school and parish.”

Dwyer has been the principal since the school’s founding in 2006, but her connection to St. Raphael goes back even further, to when she became the director of the St. Raphael’s Nursery School in 1990. That year, her youngest daughter, Meghan, was beginning the program as a three year old.

This year, Dwyer’s journey with St. Raphael comes full circle, not only with the principal of the year award, but also because Meghan recently brought her own three-year-old daughter to begin school at St. Raphael. Meghan was there for the announcement of the award, along with her husband, Geoff, and their two kids, as well as Dwyer’s husband, Dick, and their son, Rich.

 “It is a real joy to be here at St. Raphael’s,” said Dwyer. “…It has been a phenomenal privilege to be a part of the growth and the future of the church…it is really exhilarating to watch a new class come in each year…and then staying and watching them go as strong, confident Catholic young men and women.”

Dwyer noted that announcement took place on the feast of St. Thomas of Villanova, who is personally significant to her because she met her husband at Villanova University, and two of their children went there for college.

“His whole biography was servant leadership, so I think a principal is there to help the kids – everything is about the kids – and to support our teachers and to work with parents and to have it all come together in the best Catholic tradition,” said Dwyer.

Father Dave Wells, the parochial vicar at St. Raphael, described Dwyer as the “total package.”

“[She is] faith-filed, really enthusiastic about the children and about the mission of the school, full of joy. [She has] a great sense of humor and a great love and devotion to the Church, to the parish, and to the school itself,” said Father Wells. “From the top down, she just formed this school and the faculty and really the whole environment to be a fun, faith-filled and joyful environment.”

Father Michael Salah, the pastor of St. Raphael, noted that the Church is the center of Dwyer’s life.

“I see her on Sunday, 7 o’clock Mass every Sunday with her husband,” he said. “She not only tells about the faith, but she lives it.”

Several students noted the importance of the school’s morning prayer service in their own faith formation, noting how Dwyer uses it as an opportunity to bring up feast days and teach them about the lives of the saints.

“She helps us learn more about our faith every day in morning prayer,” said eighth grader Thomas Flaherty, who has been at St. Raphael since kindergarten.

Dwyer said these morning prayers have been great for her own faith life as well, because it gives her, along with the whole school community, the opportunity to “take calming breaths and give the day to God.”

“Every day my faith grows being here at St. Raphael,” Dwyer said.

Eighth grader Timmy O’Connor noted that all of his siblings have gone through the school at St. Raphael, so “my family knows Mrs. Dwyer really well…she’s a wonderful person.”

“Even though she is our principal and we don’t have classes with her, she has taught me more than all of the teachers here,” said O’Connor. “She’s taught me about my faith, about how to grow in my faith, about how to prepare for high school, and how to work like Jesus did.”

When asked what she hoped the students took away from their experience at St. Raphael, Dwyer said, “ I hope they know that God loves them, not when they get it right, but every day, and [He] is always there to walk with them and support them.”