Holy Cross School to Lose Its Last Nuns : Education: With reassignment of principal, the institution will be in the hands of lay faculty.


Maryellen Parziale clearly remembers the first time that she saw Sister Joseph Cecile Voelker, principal of Holy Cross School in downtown Ventura.


The nun was answering questions about the Catholic school when one parent asked whether the homeless who sleep and beg nearby are ever a problem.

“Sister kind of hesitated and it got real quiet,” recalled Parziale, 37, an Ojai mother of four.


“And she said: ‘Yes, we have a terrible problem with the street people. Sometimes our kids make fun of them.’ ”

Voelker’s compassion convinced Parziale that Holy Cross is the right place for her children’s grammar school education. So she was distressed to recently learn that Voelker and part-time secretary Sister Miriam Grace Erramouspe, the only two nuns left at the school, will be leaving Holy Cross this summer.

Although her children’s lay teachers have been excellent, Parziale said she and other parents are concerned that the spiritual tone of the school may diminish. “There’s a little bit of fear in the sense that the sisters bring that commitment to the church that lay people may not have,” she said.

Starting in September, the school will be run entirely by a lay staff, ending 73 years of service by nuns from the Holy Cross Order for whom the school was named. A special Mass commemorating the sisters’ years of work in Ventura will be held today at noon at San Buenaventura Mission.

Immediately after Mass, a reception for the school’s hundreds of alumni and retired Holy Cross nuns will be held in the school auditorium next door to the mission.

Retired Oxnard funeral home director James Reardon will be among those attending the reception. Reardon, 81, was a third-grader when Holy Cross opened for classes in 1922.

A photo from that first class of 125 students shows a young Reardon in dress shirt and tie, smiling shyly for the camera. His brother, retired Ventura funeral home director Joseph P. Reardon, is also in the fading photo.

“It won’t be the same, I can tell you that,” James Reardon said.

“Nuns are good teachers and good disciplinarians. Kids have quite a respect for them. And without them there, it’s going to be more difficult for the lay teachers to keep control.”

Besides strict academics, sisters bring a spiritual dimension to a school that cannot be duplicated by lay teachers, said Dottie Massa, principal of Santa Clara School in Oxnard.

“They have devoted their lives to their religion,” Massa said. “They are married to God. So they can devote all their energies to their jobs as educators and pass their spirituality on to the students.”

But Voelker said teachers and principals who aren’t nuns can do a very good job of running a Catholic school. “We have trained the laity,” she said. “A lot of teachers have gone to Catholic schools and trained side-by-side with the sisters.”

The change to a lay administration was inevitable, Voelker said. Every year, there are fewer women willing to enter the convent, she said.

“To be a nun, there is a forever in there--for chastity, poverty and obedience to God,” Voelker said. “A lot of young women can’t make that commitment.”

Eleven years ago, there were about 900 sisters in elementary schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Today, that number has declined to 306, said Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, the archdiocese’s associate superintendent of elementary education.

“The trend is definitely toward the laity, and every year we have more and more lay administrators in Catholic schools,” Galt said.

The scarcity of nuns is apparent throughout Ventura County. Although many of the county’s 10 Catholic grammar schools continue to have nuns as principals, very few still have sisters who teach.

Our Lady of Guadalupe in Oxnard, for instance, has three sisters from the St. Joseph Order, one who is the principal and two who teach.

But six other parochial schools have no nuns in the classroom and three elementary schools--Santa Clara in Oxnard, St. Rose of Lima in Simi Valley and St. Sebastian in Santa Paula--have no sisters on staff at all.

Retired sisters, many of whom live at St. Catherine’s By-the-Sea retirement home in Ventura, try to help fill in the gaps by acting as substitute teachers or tutors. Some even delay retirement.

One nun at Our Lady of the Assumption School in Ventura was 76 when she retired last year, culminating a 45-year teaching career, Principal Francis Marie DiNardo said.

“They work until the last drop, poor things,” DiNardo said.

But there simply are not enough nuns to go around, sisters say.

“Many people’s memories of Catholic schools are of nuns in every classroom,” said Sister Marian Clare, principal of St. Anthony’s School in Oxnard. “But that hasn’t been the case for a long time.”

When parishioners at San Buenaventura Mission decided in the early 1920s to build a parish school, Mary Reardon, mother of James and Joseph, was determined to import nuns from the same order that had given her a primary education in Chicago, said Ann D. Snider, the school’s historian.

Reardon was successful in luring the Holy Cross Order to the mission by promising to name the school after their congregation, Snider said. The first school was designed by Albert C. Martin, the same architect who designed the old Ventura Courthouse, now Ventura City Hall.

Demand for a parochial school was stronger than its founders expected. There were 125 students on opening day, more than three times the anticipated number, Snider said. The six sisters who helped establish the school had to squeeze them into four classrooms.

Tuition was $1 a month. Today, it’s $180.

In 1925, two classrooms and an auditorium were added. But the number of students seeking enrollment again outpaced available seats, and another two classrooms, a library, an office and a supply room were added in 1949, Snider said.

No additional constructions has occurred since then, mainly because the school has no available land to expand. So Voelker has struggled to use the school’s limited space as efficiently as possible.

She recently turned a janitor’s closet into a small computer lab. And a storage area has been converted into a bright and colorful kindergarten classroom.

She has enjoyed her seven years as principal, but it is time for her to move on, Voelker said. She has been appointed coordinator of the 250 retired sisters in her congregation nationwide, a job that requires her full-time attention, Voelker said.

For the first time since 1922, the sisters of the Holy Cross did not have any nuns to replace her, she told parents in an April letter announcing her upcoming departure.

Sister Miriam Grace, the other nun at Holy Cross, would also be ending her temporary service as an office secretary, Voelker told parents. The mission’s pastor, Msgr. Patrick J. O’Brien, formed a search committee that included parents to interview candidates to replace Voelker.

They selected Dorothy Reed, who is principal of Holy Cross School in Sacramento and a former principal at Our Lady of Peace School in North Hills. Voelker will work with Reed for a few weeks this summer to complete the transition.

Then the nun will be off to her next ministry. And an era at Holy Cross School--and in Ventura--will come to an end.

Said Sister Editha Andrews, a retired nun who taught at Holy Cross for many years: “The whole world is changing, so what can you do?”