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‘I Knew From That Moment on …’

By Mary D. Dillard | Photographs by Mary D. Dillard

‘I Knew From That Moment on …’

How the Love of Christ Set the Course for One Principal’s Life

"Why should we choose Catholic education?”

That is a question Mary Jane Dorn, principal of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in Homewood, gets asked a great deal these days by parents looking for a place to educate their children. “When I first started, I would never get that question,” Dorn admits, but the inquiry gives her the opportunity to explain the reason for her life’s work: the love of Christ.

Dorn’s 36 years in Catholic education can be traced back to her very first day of school at St. Anthony’s Catholic School in Ensley, a neighborhood to the west of downtown Birmingham. “I remember that first day of kindergarten like it was yesterday,” she recalls. At the young age of five, Dorn walked into the classroom of Mary Pumilia Lanza and was struck by the “feeling of joy.” “She just exuded joy and love,” Dorn fondly remembers. “I knew from that moment on that I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be just like her.”

Most certainly, Lanza had a God-given gift of teaching, but she also had a deep connection to her Catholic faith. Lanza had a relationship with God, and through that relationship, she was able to reflect the love of Christ to her students. Lanza, however, was not the only one in Dorn’s formative years with a deep relationship with God.

As was commonplace at the time, religious sisters were a fixture in many Catholic schools. Throughout her elementary and middle school years at St. Anthony’s, St. Catherine’s, and St. Joseph’s, Dorn observed the quiet witness of the Sisters of Mercy, the Benedictine Sisters, and the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was through her interaction with the sisters that Dorn made another decision for her future: She knew she “wanted to be a teacher in a Catholic school.”

After graduating from John Carroll Catholic High School, Dorn went off to college, studying to become a teacher. In order to earn her degree, she had to travel to public schools and observe teachers in the classroom setting. During these sessions, Dorn felt a void. “I know a building is a building, but like a house, a family makes it a home.” For Dorn, having God at the center of education made the walls of brick and mortar a school.

Fresh out of college, Dorn took the first step toward fulfilling her childhood dream and began teaching at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Ensley, becoming a fellow faculty member to her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Lanza. After a short three years of teaching fourth grade, Dorn’s path took an unexpected detour. Sister Margaret O’Brien, P.B.V.M., the principal at the time, was set to return to Ireland. Sister Margaret informed the 25-year-old Dorn that she had been chosen by the sisters to be the principal. “I don’t know what they saw in me that I certainly didn’t see in myself,” Dorn confesses. “I guess they knew I had a love for that school, and it was my dream to teach there.”

For four years, Dorn served as the principal of St. Joseph’s, but she says she was “probably too young to be principal.” “I look back,” she reflects, “and I think I probably learned what not to do. ... I just needed a little more maturity.”

Her limited number of years in the classroom created a sense of doubt for Dorn, so she left St. Joseph’s to pursue a career in accounting. “I didn’t have the life experience or the tools. I got those as a parent.” Her two children were born while she was working in the “business world,” and when it was time for them to start school, she visited Our Lady of Sorrows School, where one of her former John Carroll teachers, Missy Hayes, was the principal.

“I just got this feeling when I walked into this school. It was a family feel.” The surety that she had felt on her very first day of kindergarten was back: She belonged in Catholic education.

After teaching math and religion to seventh- and eighth-grade students for eight years at Our Lady of Sorrows, she was asked to consider a role that had once filled her with doubt. Twenty years ago, she took over as principal at Our Lady of Sorrows, and, to this day, she has never looked back.

What she knew in its most rudimentary form at age five was that the love of Christ is a powerful force. What she came to realize was that Catholic education is one of the Catholic Church’s conduits for that love.

“We all have the same goal, and that is to get to Heaven … as teachers, [we are called] to help these children on their way to Heaven.”

Dorn strongly believes that Catholic education plays a major role in building the Kingdom of God, but admits it can be daunting, especially considering the current society in which students find themselves. “It is a lot of responsibility being a teacher … kids are dealing with so much more and are exposed to so much more these days.” While the responsibility can be rather intimidating, she is encouraged and guided by the words of her mentor and former John Carroll teacher, Our Lady of Sorrows’ long-time pastor, Msgr. Martin Muller. “As he always says, ‘God didn’t say take up your pillow and follow Me, it’s take up your cross and follow Me.’”

Keeping Christ at the center of every school day is paramount in Catholic education. Academically excellent options abound, but, according to Dorn, Catholic teachers are able to provide instruction using every necessary piece. “I just don’t know how you teach without incorporating the moral, emotional, academic, and spiritual [elements]. Our whole reason for existence is to uphold the truths of the Church. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. Like a tree, without roots it will fall over. If you are rooted in truth, you are going to grow.”

Being rooted in truth has not only brought many families back into a more active relationship with their faith, but also brought students and entire families into full communion with the Church. Catholic education works with the parents of children to plant the seeds of faith and foster growth by creating roots imbued with the love of Christ. “Things that we teach become a fabric of their being,” Dorn explains. “It won’t be forgotten.”

So, why should parents choose Catholic education? The answer is simple, for as the students of Our Lady of Sorrows pray, “Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school.”