In 1994, I stood outside the new Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, Maryland, scribbling in my reporter’s notepad, as Sister Frances Stavalo, a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini and the founding principal there, pulled on a rope that rang a school bell while students walked inside for the first day of school there.
Over the 25 years since, as a reporter and then as editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper, I’ve written about many milestones for the school, including it being named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2011, and witnessed our son Joe and daughter Anna begin attending there as shy children and graduate from there as confident eighth graders, on their way to high school and college and careers as a writer and a nurse.
And on Oct. 4, I returned there to report on Michael Friel, Mary of Nazareth’s first lay principal who has led the school since 2003, being named as the Archdiocese of Washington’s 2019 Principal of the Year.
Throughout that morning, I kept thinking about another story that I covered at Mary of Nazareth School five years ago, that to me says everything about what makes that school, and its principal, and Catholic education, special.
On that day in 2014, about 500 Mary of Nazareth students, faculty and staff stood together on the school’s soccer field and participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge to honor Tom Schaefer, who had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Schaefer and his wife Ursula had three children – Carson, Andrew and Kate – attending Mary of Nazareth. The event kicked off with a cooler of ice being dumped on Friel, the school’s principal, who moments earlier had huddled with the Schaefer children and sang the title of rapper Vanilla Ice’s song “Ice Ice Baby.” That kicked off a cascade of rows of students, grade by grade, being doused by cups of ice and cold water.
I reported then how Schaefer, sitting in his wheelchair in the shade under a canopy set on top of the hillside, smiled and laughed as he watched the crowd of laughing children below shrieking and shivering. “I love it!” he said.
Then I saw something remarkable. In my article, I reported what happened next:
“One by one, all the Mary of Nazareth students and teachers walked up to Tom Schaefer to offer him encouragement. Some small children smiled and gave him two thumbs up, while other students shook or touched his hand, or offered little waves. The students greeted him with ‘Hi, keep up the good fight,’ and ‘Stay strong,’ and ‘We love you,’ and ‘We’re praying for you.’ One girl smiled and said, ‘God bless you. Keep fighting!’ Schaefer, who had trouble speaking because of the disease, responded, ‘I will!’”
Afterward Andrew Schaefer, then a fifth grader at Mary of Nazareth, said, “I think it’s so inspiring, how everyone we know and don’t know chose to help us, and bring courage and strength to our family.”
Tom Schaefer died of ALS in 2016, just before Carson graduated from the eighth grade at Mary of Nazareth School. Carson and Andrew now attend Gonzaga College High School in Washington, and Kate attends Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland.
One of the many people who celebrated Friel’s being named as Principal of the Year was Ursula Schaefer. In an interview, she described how the school community shared their family’s journey through Tom’s illness, as his disease caused him to use a walker and then a wheelchair and ultimately prevented him from speaking. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 2011, a few months after Carson, then a third grader, and Andrew, then a first grader, had transferred to the school.
“From the beginning to the end, he (Friel) would do anything for us, absolutely anything,” Ursula Schaefer said. “When you’re faced with such a devastating disease as ALS, you can’t know how isolating it is as a family, because your life is no longer typical. The biggest gift you can receive is to be treated normally. From the beginning, with Mike at the helm, Mary of Nazareth showed us what compassion and love was when we needed it the most.”
Families facing a terminal diagnosis need that normalcy, she said. “It means so much when people look past the disability and treat you like any other person.”
She added that, “Those teachers and Mike and the school community were there alongside us as we were experiencing those losses. Tom and myself found such relief that the kids were being looked after in that faithful environment. We knew that was one less thing we had to worry about.”
At her husband’s Funeral Mass in 2016, Ursula Schaefer said, “I have no doubt God led us to Mary of Nazareth for that reason, for that outpouring of compassion and love.”
During his illness and after his death, many Mary of Nazareth families have contributed to and participated in ALS walks, to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds to help find a cure, “to honor him (Tom) while he was alive, and to walk after his death in his memory,” she said in the interview with the Catholic Standard.
The day of the Ice Bucket Challenge at Mary of Nazareth School was “extremely humbling,” she added. “That community came together that day,” as a Catholic school and faith community, demonstrating to her “what makes Mary of Nazareth a very special place.”
“It was just so emotional that day. It was overwhelming,” she said, remembering the students’ personal greetings to Tom after the Ice Bucket Challenge. “He was just so happy. He felt so loved.”
And she said he appreciated that their efforts were not just for him, but for the bigger cause of finding a cure for ALS.
Ursula Schaefer said the day was also a very special day for their children, as their classmates literally stood with them and their family.
“They left with a feeling of inclusion, and they left with a feeling of absolute support, and that was just huge,” she said.
Describing the impact that attending Mary of Nazareth and now Gonzaga and Stone Ridge have had on their children, Ursula Schaefer said, “Those experiences have fostered a spiritual growth in our children that unequivocally wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
So she too celebrated the news of Michael Friel being named as the Principal of the Year. “I was thrilled that he was recognized for his dedication to Mary of Nazareth and Catholic education,” she said. “He is without question the reason the Mary of Nazareth community is as strong as it is. His energy, his spirit, how he interacts with the kids is unmatched.”
On the day of the Ice Bucket Challenge at Mary of Nazareth School five years ago, Tom Schaefer expressed gratitude for the effort and for the lessons the students would learn that day, noting, “It’s nice to be part of something bigger” than yourself. And speaking of the love and support his family received from the school community, he said, “It makes all the difference in the world.”
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