St. Anthony of Padua’s principal of 42 years lauded
When you’re the face of a Catholic elementary school for more than four decades, you tend to get recognized, especially in “small town” New Orleans.
So it was par for the course when Dominican Sister of Peace Ruth Angelette, St. Anthony of Padua School’s beloved principal of 42 years, found herself spinning around three times during a recent half-hour trip to Sears to answer someone shouting, “Sister Ruth!”
“I cannot go shopping without meeting someone who was a parent, a student or a teacher,” said Sister Ruth, adding that alumni also regularly return to the school’s Canal Street campus to visit their former teachers and update them on their lives.
If an alum comes in, I don’t care what I’m doing, I will stop,” Sister Ruth said. “They will talk about the feeling of belonging, of family and the desire to make a difference that was cultivated here (at St. Anthony).”
Historic moment for school
An alumna of St. Leo the Great Elementary, St. Mary’s Dominican High and Dominican College, Sister Ruth, 78, will be honored with the Office of Catholic School’s 2015 Distinguished Graduate Award at the Catholic Schools Week Mass, slated for Feb. 4 at 10 a.m. at St. Dominic.
Adding to the occasion will be the fact that Sister Ruth will be the century-year-old school’s last principal. Next fall, St. Anthony’s Canal Street campus will become part of Christian Brothers School, offering instruction to boys and girls in grades preK-4 through 4.
Boys will decamp to Christian Brothers’ City Park campus for grades 5 to 7, while girls in those grades will continue their Christian Brothers education on Canal Street, to be known as Christian Brothers’ “St. Anthony Campus.”
A repeat invitation intrigues
Born Jacqueline Angelette in New Orleans, Sister Ruth took her religious name from the biblical Ruth, but also from her mother, who was widowed when her husband, a shoemaker, died when Sister Ruth was 8.
To make ends meet, the family built a carriage house on their lot, with the resulting rental income supporting the five Angelette children and their Catholic education.
Sister Ruth was initially approached on the possibility of becoming a religious sister as an eighth grader at Dominican-run St. Leo, encouraged by one of her teachers to consider attending Rosaryville – the Dominicans’ high school and novitiate for girls discerning a vocation.
Desiring instead to attend a “regular” high school – St. Mary’s Dominican – Sister Ruth was sought out again in her senior year by a sister who taught her how to knit at recess.
“She said, ‘You need to go to Rosaryville,’ but I didn’t want to think about it,” Sister Ruth said. “I basically ignored her, but that little voice stayed there. I figured in eighth grade someone invited me, and now they were telling me (the same thing), so I’d better go see.
“All my life I have felt (my vocation) was more of an intellectual calling than a emotional attraction,” Sister Ruth added. “I thought there was something that I needed to do with my life that would be God’s will, and (the sisterhood) is what he wanted for me.”
Weathered Hurricane Camille
Upon professing her final vows in 1960, Sister Ruth taught sixth and seventh graders at Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans, St. Mary’s in Cottonport and Holy Ghost in Hammond. In 1964, she was asked by her major superior to open a new elementary school: St. Clare in Waveland, Mississippi.
“I was dumbfounded because I had only had five years of teaching and I didn’t think I was in line for that,” said Sister Ruth, who prepared for the new challenge by earning a master’s degree in Education Administration at Marquette University.
When St. Clare’s was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969, Sister Ruth networked with residents, business people and the National Guard to get the school up in running in just six weeks, holding classes in trailers and tents provided by NASA. Families were clamoring to return to St. Clare, registering their children before they even knew the school would come back, she said.
In the midst of all this, Sister Ruth was asked by Msgr. Clinton Doskey, then chancellor for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to help manage a Red Cross response center with the Army and Navy.
“It was an experience of a lifetime,” she said. “You’re working at it, but you don’t realize what you’re doing; you’re just filling needs. I can remember the lines forming outside for people who wanted milk and food and diapers. These people included the wives of doctors and dentists – people who wanted for nothing before the storm.”
Makings of a great principal
Leaving Waveland in 1972 to begin a congregational leadership role as general councilor and assistant to the major superior of the New Orleans Dominicans, Sister Ruth was named principal of St. Anthony of Padua in 1974. At that time, it was a school of 572 students in grades K-8.
Sister Ruth, who had been recognized as “Outstanding Young Educator” of Hancock County, Mississippi, for her work at St. Clare, was driven by a passionate desire to educate the whole child. To accomplish this, she said principals must never stop taking the temperature of what students and their families need, spiritually, practically and academically.
“As an administrator you have to be really perceptive, really listen and continuously assess what’s going on and what needsto go on,” she said.
This mindset led St. Anthony to offer many curricular enhancements long before they were required or were popular. For example, as divorce became more common in the early 1980s, St. Anthony became one of the first Catholic schools to have a social worker on campus.
When Sister Ruth noticed that many school families had two working parents and their children often were going home to an empty house, she launched one of the earliest aftercare programs.
“We began the 4-year-old program to coincide with the fact that parents were going out to work, and then we went down to the 3s and then the 2s,” said Sister Ruth, who also bolstered afterschool dance and sports programs.
“These are things that are ordinary now,” she said, “but when we started them I felt like we were one of the first.”
Sensitive to language needs
Sister Ruth and her faculty addressed another area of need when families from Spanish-speaking countries began flooding into New Orleans in the 1980s, initiating a program that removed youngsters from their regular classrooms for part of the day so they could take intensive English lessons. The principal also fortified the school’s Spanish language program to benefit both Spanish and non-Spanish speakers, and instituted an annual Spanish language Mass in which students do all responses, reading and singing in Spanish.
Always on the lookout to offer her students the most well-rounded education possible, Sister Ruth instituted weekly classes in American Sign Language, art and music, the latter featuring lessons in guitar and keyboards as well as voice.
This school year, when the uncertainty of the Christian Brothers merger led to a decline in enrollment to 117 students in grades pre-K2 through 7, Sister Ruth decided to offer yet another curricular enhancement: professionally taught ballet and dance.
A solid morning tradition
Another school-day element reflecting the principal’s mission to give students the confidence and skills they need to succeed on the adult world are St. Anthony’s daily morning assemblies run almost entirely by students.
After gathering in the auditorium for the morning bell, every student takes out a library book for five minutes of quiet reading, followed by the leading of the prayer and the Pledge at the microphone by rotating students from all grades.
Next, a patriotic song is sung – with students expressing the lyrics in American Sign Language – or a new hymn is rehearsed in anticipation of the weekly school Mass.
Throughout each assembly, a large screen displays the school’s mission, vision or summary of an “ideal student,” with Sister Ruth picking out a key word or idea to discuss with her students – concepts like “What does it mean to do the right thing even when it’s not popular?”
“It sets the tone of the day,” Sister Ruth said of the assemblies. “That’s where we impart to them what Catholic living is all about.”
Another simple way to hone students’ poise is to put a different grade in charge of the school Mass and prohibit adults – except for the priest and deacon – from filling any of the liturgical ministries.
“Everything is done by children,” Sister Ruth said. “When we were growing up, there was one microphone, and the only person you ever saw was president of the student council up there,” she said. “Now, you can buy a good microphone for under $100. That microphone stays on the stage. The children will come by and just pick it up. They find their voice and they find their singing voice.”
New roles for 2016-17
Sister Ruth will serve next fall as Christian Brothers’ vice president in charge of mission and vision, maintaining an office at the St. Anthony campus.
She also will direct the parish-operated St. Anthony of Padua Preschool, a Montessori-based program for 2- and 3-year-olds that will be located in the convent building. Sister Ruth said she hopes to have more time to pursue hobbies including sewing and reading.
Her accolades over her years at St. Anthony of Padua include receiving the 1987 National Distinguished Principal Award from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Exemplary School Award (now Blue Ribbon School of Excellence) in1988.
“One alumna told me recently, ‘Sister, you have no idea what you meant to me in my life,’ and that’s true. You don’t have any idea of the impact that you have,” Sister Ruth said.
“But that (recognition) is not why you do it,” she explained. “You do it because it’s right, and you do it for the love of God.”