When St. Elizabeth School in Rockville, Maryland, opened its doors for the new school year on Sept. 6, students and parents walked past balloons and a large banner, and then gathered in the gym, where the pastor, Msgr. Bill Parent, offered a blessing.

St. Elizabeth’s new principal, Mary Penny, gave her opening address and showed them a gold button from her own school days there, emblazoned with the words “I BELONG TO THE FAMILY OF ST. ELIZABETH SCHOOL.”

In a recent interview, she remembered her message to the school community that day: “Whether it’s your first day or you’ve been here for years, we’re all members of the St. Elizabeth School family, and it’s a very special family to be a member of.”

Penny speaks from experience about the school that in a letter to parents on its website, she described as “my second home for many years.” As Mary McCarthy, she grew up in a neighborhood about a mile from school and graduated from there in 1981, and she remembers walking, running, riding bikes or taking the bus to school. Her four siblings Kathleen, Frank, Mike and Anne also attended St. Elizabeth School, as did her cousin Tricia Donahue. Penny’s parents, Frank and Pat McCarthy, volunteered with St. Elizabeth’s home and school association and its school board, and her mom was sometimes a substitute teacher there for language arts and social studies classes.

Later, Penny and her husband Chris sent their four sons to St. Elizabeth School – twins John and Patrick and their younger brothers Michael and Thomas.

“She has a deep affection for St. Elizabeth School, not simply because she is an alumna, but also because of the school’s role in the formation of her four sons,” said Vincent Spandoni, the president of the Consortium of Catholic Academies for the Archdiocese of Washington who served as the principal of St. Elizabeth School from 2005 until this past June, when Penny succeeded him as principal there.

Spadoni noted he had worked side-by-side with Penny for 15 years, “and I know that our school will continue to thrive under her outstanding leadership.”

Mary Penny served as vice principal at St. Elizabeth School from 2017 until becoming principal in July 2019. She earlier served as the school’s director of admissions and institutional advancement. As a parent volunteer, she helped establish the preschool program there and served as president of St. Elizabeth School’s Advisory Board and of its Home School Association.

Penny said that since the 1970s, members of her family have been attending or serving at St. Elizabeth School. Her aunt, Anne McCarthy, taught middle school social studies there for more than two decades and sent all six of her sons to the school.

“I had a lot of family in the building,” said Penny, who added that her mother, who for many years coordinated the parish’s outreach to senior citizens and continues to be a parishioner, “is beyond happy” about her being principal there now.

“My mom’s best friends are still fellow parents from when we were here. My closest friends I take trips with are fellow (St. Elizabeth’s) parents,” she said.

Just as her parents did, it was natural for Penny to volunteer at the school. Penny later served as president of the Mother’s Club of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, where her four sons attended after graduating from St. Elizabeth School.

“I wanted to give back. They (both schools) were so incredible to my children,” Penny said, and then laughed as she added, “I didn’t know it would lead to this office. No one is more surprised than me… It’s truly surreal to be in here as leader. I drive to the building or drive past Montrose Road and say I can’t believe (I’m serving) as principal of St. Elizabeth School.”

During a visit to a first grade classroom at St. Elizabeth School, principal Mary Penny looks at the work being done by student Liam Janjikian. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

When friends learned that Penny would be the new principal at St. Elizabeth School, she began receiving texts jokingly urging her to “bring back the bench!”

When she was a student there, the principal then, Sister Virginia Marie, had a bench outside her office, where children who had been nabbed for bad behavior had to sit.

“It was the bench of shame!” said Penny, who noted that sick students also sat on the bench, and when classmates walked by, they made clear that illness, and not misdeeds, had led to them sitting there.

Penny has feelings of gratitude for the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the lay teachers who taught her at St. Elizabeth School. “They shaped us into good citizens and future leaders,” she said.

“I was a very bashful child,” Penny said, remembering how as a second grader, she was picked to read at church, and practiced the reading on a tape recorder with her dads’ help. “That was my first public speaking, and I thought I would pass out,” she said.

Penny was also inspired by the school’s first lay principal, Maureen McCabe, the first lay woman she had seen in a leadership role. “She was a strong leader,” remembered Penny, who served as vice president of the student government at St. Elizabeth School as an eighth grader.

Then Penny went on to attend Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, graduating there in 1985, and she said that all-girls’ Catholic high school also fostered leadership in its students.

“I took chances I would not have taken in a coed school,” she said. Every year she served in student government there, and in her senior year, she was president of Holy Child’s student government. Penny said she had great friends and great teachers at the school.

Then Penny went to the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. A certified public accountant, she later worked as an auditor, comptroller and office manager for several companies. She is enrolled in the master’s degree program for leadership and teaching at Notre Dame University in Maryland and is on track to complete her degree next summer.

“It’s such a blessing for me to have gone to Catholic school all the way through school,” Penny said, remembering attending late evening Masses at the University of Notre Dame. When she returns there, she lights a candle for a special prayer intention at the Grotto. “It’s a very sacred, holy place for me,” she said.

She and her husband Chris met at Notre Dame and graduated together there in 1989, marrying two years later. He served on submarines in the Navy and over the years worked as a research analyst for an investment bank, helping with mergers and acquisitions. Now he serves as chief supply chain and manufacturing officer for CAVA restaurants.

Penny said she knows and believes in the value of Catholic education, because it gives children academic and spiritual formation for life.

“We’re truly educating the whole child,” she said, adding that sending children out into the world with strong faith helps them know that even “in hard times, they’ll always have their faith with them.” Penny said faith has helped the St. Elizabeth School community through challenges like student and parent illnesses and deaths and other hardships over the years. “It’s a beautiful thing in a Catholic school when people are going through hard times, to be able to call upon Jesus and the Blessed Mother and turn to them in prayer. I don’t know how you’d go through those hard times without prayer.”

Mary Penny, the new principal of St. Elizabeth School in Rockville, Maryland, stands outside the school that she attended as a child, sent her four sons to, volunteered at as a parent, worked as a staff member, and now leads. She says St. Elizabeth School is like her “second home.” (CS photo/Andrew Biraj) 

The nickname for St. Elizabeth School’s teams is the Saints. Penny noted, “That’s our job as Catholic educators, to lead them on the path to becoming a saint.”

She said St. Elizabeth School has changed over the years, growing from a neighborhood school to the largest Catholic elementary school in the archdiocese, with its students coming from a wide area.

“To see the growth and the change in diversity (among students), that is the best change,” she said.

Since the school opened in 1966, wings and a new gym have been added, along with computer labs. But some traditions remain the same, like teachers and students documenting children’s acts of kindness such as helping a younger student or classmate, and students being presented with kindness and character awards during the year.

Penny said she has learned from the example of her predecessors who served as principals at St. Elizabeth School, and from her own experiences there as a student, parent and staff member.

“You do know everything is a learning and a teaching moment. Even the hardest moments are learning and teaching moments,” she said.

Now as principal, Penny greets students who walk through the same front door that she once entered, go to classrooms where she once sat, and walk in hallways that she once walked.

“When I watch children do a performance or show, it is not lost on me that I was on the same stage as a small bashful child,” said Penny, adding that she can relate to St. Elizabeth’s students and their parents, because she once “walked in their shoes, (you) know what they’re experiencing, and it does make you empathetic. It also gives you perspective.”

She begins her school days there welcoming children into the school, and says goodbye to them as they leave. “Those are my cherished times,” she said.

Now as principal, she plans to cheer from the sidelines as the school’s 590 students compete in sports and other activities, just as she once did as a parent for her own children.

She doesn’t have a bench outside, but Penny is happy to be working inside her office as the new principal at St. Elizabeth School.

“I could not have guessed this journey,” she said. “I know I feel blessed at every moment to have this job. I couldn’t have guessed this path.”