From the time she was a young girl, Sharon Caniglia dreamed of being a teacher. Her dream came true, and this summer she retired after 44 years working in education, including as the principal of St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, Maryland, for the past 16 years.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “From a child, I enjoyed school. I loved it and thought one day I’d want to be a teacher. That was my dream, and this is where I landed.”

Caniglia led St. Mary’s School through a period of growing enrollment that according to the pastor, Father Rory Conley, helped sustain the school’s future after a period when the school was facing financial challenges. St. Mary’s began a pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds under her leadership. The school, which serves pre-K students through eighth graders now, has a projected enrollment of 235 students for the fall.

“Every decision she made was with the kids in mind,” said Catherine Silverstone, who has become the new principal at St. Mary’s after teaching second grade there for 11 years and earlier working at Father Andrew White, SJ School in Leonardtown for 12 years.

Another hallmark of Caniglia’s leadership was in supporting veteran teachers and hiring new ones who received awards for teaching excellence. In the past 12 years, 11 of St. Mary’s teachers received Golden Apple Awards from the Archdiocese of Washington.

“She has definitely assembled an all-star staff here,” Silverstone said, adding that the retired principal “placed the right people in the building and made this a strong community.” Reflecting on Caniglia’s impact on St. Mary’s School, the new principal laughed and said, “She’ll definitely be a hard act to follow!”

Father Conley praised Caniglia’s faith and dedication, noting how she shepherded the school through this spring’s online learning necessitated by the coronavirus shutdown of Catholic school campuses, and this summer, she’s working through mid-August to help the new principal’s transition.

“She never let up. She’s very dedicated to the school,” said Father Conley, who said the St. Mary’s School community will honor Caniglia with a special Mass and reception planned for Oct. 18.

The top of the website for St. Mary’s School notes the school’s mission of “nurturing a lifelong love for Jesus, each other and learning.” In an interview, Caniglia spoke about the impact that she hopes the school has on students.

“We’re here to teach and guide children in their faith, their academics and their social and emotional learning,” she said, adding that the school has also impacted her life. “It’s given me an opportunity to grow in my faith and be a Christ-like example to my students.”

From the beginning of her tenure as principal there, Caniglia made it a point to stand outside St. Mary’s School and greet students as they arrived in the morning. Getting to know each student by name meant a lot to her, she said, adding that a special perk of being principal was that she could stop in and visit classes during the day. And if a substitute teacher was needed, she could pitch in.

Reflecting on her love for the Southern Maryland Catholic school, she said, “It’s a very Christ-centered, nurturing family environment. The teachers and the families are wonderful. They’re the ones who’ve made this community special.”

Sharon Caniglia, the retired principal of St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, Maryland, poses with the school’s new principal, Catherine Silverstone, who taught second grade there for the past 11 years. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s School)

A native of Washington, D.C., Caniglia earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in elementary education from George Washington University, and an advanced educational specialist degree from the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore.

Caniglia began her teaching career at St. Peter’s School in Waldorf, Maryland as an eighth grade homeroom teacher and fifth to eighth grade math teacher for three years, and she later returned there to teach the first grade for six years, before joining St. Mary’s School as its principal. 

In addition to her 25 years at those Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, she taught eight years at the First Baptist Church of Waldorf’s preschool, was elected to serve 12 years on Charles County Public Schools Board of Education, taught English for two years at the College of Southern Maryland (formerly Charles County Community College), taught teachers for three years at the Southern Maryland Higher Learning Center, and was a substitute middle school math teacher for one year in Charles County.

“I have taught pre-K to college,” she said of her years in education.

In her retirement, Caniglia said she is looking forward to spending more time with her family, including her nine grandchildren who are all under the age of 11. She has three adult children: Catherine Manofsky, a lawyer; Jill Springer, who owns a design and photography business and is studying to be a teacher; and Dr. Christopher Joseph (C.J.) Caniglia, a veterinarian who specializes in surgery for horses.

As she prepared to conclude her work at St. Mary’s, Caniglia praised the school’s award-winning teachers, noting “their compassion, their caring, their ability and their faith have made them the stars they are, because of their dedication to Catholic education and to the children they teach.”

She said the dedication and talent of St. Mary’s teachers shined through during the coronavirus shutdown, as they shifted to distance learning, providing online lessons for students.

“We didn’t miss a beat. We packed everything on Friday. We said, ‘Take what you need, you don’t know when we’re coming back,’ and we started online learning on Monday. My faculty rose to the occasion,” she said.

Caniglia didn’t stop her classroom visits during the shutdown, noting that she joined most Zoom and Google meetings teachers had for students.

“I went from class to class,” she said, praising the support of parents, and noting that the school held “catch-up” Fridays if students needed more online instruction from their teachers.

The veteran educator expressed hope that classroom instruction will resume in the fall, saying, “Children need to be in school, and teachers need to be in school. Teachers didn’t sign up to be teachers on screen.”

She noted that when she started as St. Mary’s principal, she prayed that she would do the job right, and hope to be there for five years.

Sixteen years later, Caniglia said that Jesus “has been by my side each day. It’s the greatest blessing of my life, to be able to work with my great teachers, the faculty, the families that make up St. Mary’s in Bryantown, but especially the children and to see them grow in their faith and their love and their academics and be successful. One graduate just became a doctor, and the stories go on and on. It’s amazing to see them grow from pre-K.”

She also expressed gratitude for the support that Father Conley, their pastor, had given to the school.

Now after raising her children and completing a career in education devoted to children, Caniglia – who is a member of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Waldorf – said she is especially looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren, noting it was a natural transition for her to take in her life.

“That’s what its all about, the kids. You go into teaching for the children,” she said.

In a photo taken in January 2020 during Catholic Schools Week, Sharon Caniglia, then the principal of St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, Maryland, assists PreK-3 student Bradley Smith with a service project.  (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)