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Beloved St. Michael principal honored at Mass

It’s just not in Jane Silva’s DNA to sit still.

Defying the illness that has made her a little less nimble in recent months, Silva sprang from her chair like a sideline-weary coach, striding across the gym floor to lead her 192 students in the singing of St. Michael Special School’s favorite clap-along song: “Trees of the Field.”

Silva’s vintage enthusiasm – expressed at the conclusion of the May 24 Mass marking her retirement as St. Michael’s principal – brought the overflowing congregation of students, parents and friends to its feet.

“It’s a very beautiful, very joyous, happy day,” said Silva, her voice breaking as she recalled an observation by baseball legend Lou Gehrig on the occasion of his own retirement. “Though I’m nothing like (Gehrig), the words were beautiful when he said, ‘Today I felt like the luckiest man in the world.’ Well, today I know that I am the luckiest principal in the world.”

In her retirement, Silva will hold the title of principal emeritus while continuing her battle against cancer.

“You are what keeps us going, and we are so proud to be your teachers and your principal,” Silva told her students. “And we hope God grants us lots and lots of years (together), because you make us more wonderful, more holy and more full of joy.”

An obedient servant

Calling St. Michael’s a “great gift” to the local church, main celebrant and homilist Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanked Silva for her 35 years of service to St. Michael’s as a volunteer, teacher and principal. He said the special ministry performed by Silva and her colleagues – to educate and form in faith all God’s children – was a radical carrying out of Jesus’ command to his disciples in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Let the children come to me.”

“Jesus had a very, very special relationship with those children,” Archbishop Aymond said. “The same is true today. Jesus continues to say, in 2012, ‘Let the children come to me. I want them close to me. I want them to know that they’re loved. I want to teach them how to pray.’”

Noting that this “Body of Christ” included faculty, parents, benefactors and students, Archbishop Aymond alternatively asked each group to stand and be recognized. Turning to Silva, he noted that she not only had been a gifted educator and administrator, but a friend to faculty, students and parents – one whom Jesus “used well.”

“To you, she has been Jesus,” the archbishop said. “Her big heart and her long arms have embraced you time and time and time again. Her life and her ministry here at St. Michael School have said in a very clear way, in a very loving and intimate way, ‘Let the children come to me.’”

Parents fought back tears to echo the archbishop’s praises. Debbie Guthans recalls feeling her son’s future was “bleak” while searching for a school that would give him the attention he needed after a miserable time in public schools. When Guthans walked into Silva’s office, she felt “the doors fly open” for her then-sixth grader.

“His educational and emotional growth here, under Ms. Jane’s supervision, was phenomenal,” said Guthans, whose son, Nicholas, 24, graduated in 2009. “She was the first face I saw. She told me what I was feeling was normal – every mother who walks in her office comes in crying. She put us at ease, walked us through school. I talked to the teachers, I talked to the kids, and that was it.”

More than a principal

Parent Susan de Boisblanc said she would never forget the many times Silva visited her son Ben, 13, in Children’s Hospital as he fought pneumonia, always laden with books, puzzles and games in a quest to keep his mind occupied.

“I can’t tell you how many times has she comforted us, as we’ve gone into her office crying, just completely lost, or having a hard time with the kids,” de Boisblanc said. “She isn’t just a principal. She is our friend. She is another mother for Ben, and a mother for us (parents) in a lot of ways.”

At the post-Mass celebration, students formed a mock horn section and held up hearts to sing Nat King Cole’s “L.O.V.E.,” while the Satchmo classic, “What a Wonderful World,” was performed vocally and in sign language. The students presented their principal with a scrapbook of memories, a spiritual bouquet and a painting of a single blue rose – the metaphor School Sister of Notre Dame M. Lillian McCormack, foundress of the 47-year-old school, used to describe her special children.

Before exiting to the strains of “Dancing Queen,” Silva thanked the faculty and staff for being “the wind beneath my wings” and assured her students that they were in great hands.

“We are so happy and full of joy today for all of you, because when Sister Lillian started this school, one of her most famous quotes was, ‘Each of you is a beautiful blue rose. And each of you will bloom at your own time, in your own space,’” Silva said. “You are planted here at St. Michael’s and you are blooming into beautiful blue roses that are going to take care of and beautify and glorify our God and everybody that you come in contact with!”