On a late summer day, three Religious of Jesus and Mary returned to a place that they consider to be holy ground – the site of the former Regina High School in Adelphi, Maryland, which their order operated from its opening in 1955 until it closed in 1989. At that place, two of the sisters had gone to school, and all three had taught there, either learning or imparting lessons about serving God and others that changed their lives and shaped the lives of generations of young women who went there.

But on Aug. 27, 2020, the three women religious came back not for a reunion, but to assist at a food distribution organized at that location since mid-summer by St. Francis International School in Silver Spring to help individuals and families who have been impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis and economic downturn.

“To see something like this happening on the grounds of Regina High School is very heartening to me,” said Sister Rosemary Mangan, who joined the two other sisters and other volunteers in loading car trunks with 1,000 boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Program.

That was the place where her own vocation began, she said, adding, “It sparked my own interest to go out and serve others.”

A member of Regina’s class of 1961, its third graduating class, she later taught religion there and also taught at seventh and eighth graders at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville.

The former Regina High School is now the site of Cool Spring Elementary School, and on Thursdays from mid-July to late August, that location had become a hub for distributing food from that government program.

Many of the individuals and family members lining up in cars came from that area’s large immigrant population, who were disproportionately impacted by both the coronavirus and the loss of jobs and incomes affecting people in construction, food service and hospitality industries, many of whom did not have access to government benefits because of their immigration status.

For Sister Rosemary, it was especially meaningful to serve the people coming for help that day, because in her retirement she has done volunteer work with refugee families assisted by St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring and St. Francis of Assisi in Derwood.

Sister Mary Bourdon, left, and Sister Rosemary Mangan prepare to load a car with a box of fresh fruit and produce during the Aug. 27, 2020 food distribution outside Cool Spring Elementary School, the site of the former Regina High School where they once taught. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Outreach to immigrants and newcomers has also been close to the heart and work of another of the women religious volunteering there that day, Sister Margaret Perron.

A member of Regina’s class of 1962, she later taught Spanish there for seven years, before earning a law degree at The Catholic University of America and practicing immigration law for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and working for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

Now Sister Margaret serves as provincial superior on the leadership team for the Religious of Jesus and Mary.

“The reason it (Regina) is so special to me, is I started as a freshman, and the school and sisters had a big impact on me, on my formation as a young woman. It was their example. They were wonderful educators and wonderful women, and they seemed very happy in their vocation,” she said.

Coming back to teach there was a special blessing for her, she added. “I enjoyed being part of the faculty. I loved the girls. I loved the atmosphere and the vision of the school.”

The third Religious of Jesus and Mary loading cars with food that day was Sister Mary Bourdon, who now also serves on the order’s leadership team.

A Rhode Island native, she taught social studies and religion at Regina High School and was also a counselor there. Sister Mary taught at the Jesus and Mary Academy in El Paso, Texas, and served as director of her order’s Quest volunteer program that does extensive work in Haiti. She also provided counseling for individuals and families through Catholic Charities and at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.

Sister Mary served as the co-founding head of school of the Washington School for Girls, a tuition-free Catholic school for girls in grades 3-8 in the Anacostia section of Washington. The school was founded in 1997 by women from the National Council of Negro Women, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and the Religious of Jesus and Mary. One of its two campuses is located at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.

Reflecting on what it meant to her to return to the site of Regina High School, Sister Mary said, “To me, it was a heartache to close Regina. When we heard a school was taking over, (it was) not so bad. They were able to continue that mission of education so important to us and our foundress. So in a way, I feel the dynamism and the grace of Regina continues.”

Inviting the sisters to help that day was Toby Harkleroad, the principal of St. Francis International School. He knew that Cool Spring Elementary School was once the site of Regina High School staffed by the Religious of Jesus and Mary.  St. Francis International School is sponsored by St. Camillus Parish and also by St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville, Our Lady of Vietnam in Silver Spring and St. Catherine Laboure in Wheaton. The sisters once staffed St. Mark the Evangelist School, and St. Francis International School continues that former school’s educational legacy.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis after local schools were shut down, St. Francis International School continued providing food to its families through a drive-through service on its grounds, but Harkleroad realized the families could get that food assistance at a nearby public school, and St. Francis could use the food acquisition and preparation infrastructure from its nutrition program to provide food to the hard-hit Langley Park community, where there are no food banks or pantries.

Langley Park, which has one of the heaviest concentration of Hispanic immigrants in the Washington area, has been the hardest-hit zip code in Maryland during the coronavirus crisis. That district, and the area surrounding the former Regina High School, are within the boundaries of St. Camillus Parish and include families whose children attend St. Francis International School.

“How could I say no? Isn’t that our job to take care of kids in our parish? Both here and Langley Park are in the boundaries of our parish,” said Harkleroad, whose school is on grounds of St. Camillus Parish.

Since this spring, the kitchen staff of St. Francis International School, aided by volunteers from the school, from St. Camillus and St. Andrew Apostle parishes in Silver Spring, and by Franciscan postulants, prepared and distributed nearly 57,000 free meals at Langley Park through a government-funded food program for poor children. Through the USDA program, the school coordinated the distribution of 23,000 boxes of produce in the Langley Park region and at Cool Spring Elementary School.

During the summer, St. Francis International School’s food outreach program partnered in the Langley Park area with Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which prepared and provided 40,000 meals there before shifting its outreach to Lebanon and other emergency locations.

Several members of the Stephen Ministry of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring joined the Religious of Jesus and Mary as they distributed boxes of produce to the cars lining up that day at Cool Spring Elementary School.

“This just seemed like a great way, especially during the pandemic, to do something,” said Dennis Keyser, a member of St. Andrew’s and a retired meteorologist for NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Bob Kane, left, a volunteer from St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, helps load a box of fresh fruit and produce into the trunk of a car, assisted at right by Sister Margaret Perron, one of three members of the Religious of Jesus and Mary who were helping at the Aug. 27, 2020 food distribution in Adelphi, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

His fellow St. Andrew’s volunteer, Bob Kane, a retired civil engineer, has also been assisting at Catholic Charities’ food pantries and has witnessed the increased demand for help. “Locally, especially during this COVID period, the need to serve food to families has exponentially increased,” he said.

Bonnie Naradzay, also from St. Andrew’s, retired after working for the U.S. Department of Labor. “I volunteer to help here because I want to be an instrument of peace,” she said.

She noted that many of the people driving up to receive food help are Hispanic, and she doesn’t speak Spanish, but sometimes she tells them, “Vaya con Dios” (“Go with God.”)

The people seeking help also include immigrants from Africa and Asia and other local people needing food, she said, adding that sometimes there are two families in the car, with children sitting in the back seat and waving. “I look in their faces, and I see the face of what’s good,” she said.

Harkleroad noted that with Congress and the White House deadlocked on agreeing on a new coronavirus relief measure, funding has run out for the government programs that provided the food that the St. Francis’s kitchen staff has been preparing and volunteers have been giving out in Langley Park, and for the USDA boxes of produce that they have been giving out at Cool Spring Elementary School, so the distributions at both locations ended that week for the foreseeable future.

“This is just going to shut off, like a spigot,” he said of the programs that have been providing emergency food help to people in desperate need in that area for the past five and one-half months. “Outside funding and supplies are gone. We built up an infrastructure and volunteers ready to keep working,” he added, expressing worry about how the people they have been serving will find the food help that they need.

Harkleroad said St. Francis International School has to pivot its attention and resources to providing a virtual education to its 400 students, many of whom come from low-income and immigrant families. The coronavirus crisis has hit that school community in a personal way, with three fathers of students dying of COVID-19, along with a number of grandparents. A teacher and other parents and students were sickened by the virus earlier this year.

The school principal noted signs of hope, how parishes like nearby Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park have started new food pantries during the crisis, and how the pantries at parishes like St. Camillus and St. Mark’s have greatly increased their outreach, as has Catholic Charities.

The Archdiocese of Washington surveyed its 139 parishes and found that about one-half of them are operating food pantries, and those pantries have doubled their outreach during the COVID-19 crisis. Local Catholics have responded generously to a Parish Pantry Support Project launched by the archdiocese.

Sister Rosemary Mangan, left, and Sister Mary Bourdon help load one of the boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables into a car trunk during the Aug. 27, 2020 food distribution outside Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi. The building once housed Regina High School, which their religious order, the Religious of Jesus and Mary, operated from its opening in 1955 until it closed in 1989. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

The Religious of Jesus and Mary experienced a sign of hope that weekend, with a new member joining their community – a woman from Wisconsin who had been volunteering in Haiti.

The sisters helping to put boxes of food in trunks of cars that day outside the building that once housed Regina High School know all about endings and new beginnings in challenging times.

“I’m happy to be here today,” said Sister Margaret Perron. That location, she said, “is sort of like sacred space, sacred ground. It is that for me.”