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May 24. 2014 9:03PM

St. Catherine School's principal has fulfilled her mission in Manchester

MANCHESTER - It's no surprise that two years ago, teachers at St. Catherine School in Manchester found pornography on the smartphone of a third-grader.

Catholic education doesn't insulate children from curiosity, and most third-graders are technologically adept at bypassing whatever online protections exist to keep them out of seedy Internet sites.

What's surprising is the way school principal Sister Janet Belcourt dealt with it. No call to the office for the miscreant. No stern lecture. No trip to the confessional.

The nun issued a simple memo to parents - no more personal electronic devices at the kindergarten-Grade 6 school in the North End.

"What third-grader needs a cellphone?" she said recently, recounting her decision. "They need to learn to look at each other, to look at me when they talk."

Such far-reaching decisiveness comes from a woman who retires after 42 years as principal.

She's been at the school long enough to see children of former students come through the doors. She's made sure that students get their Catholic doctrine while excelling at academics. (Her school once placed second in the world in the Odyssey of the Mind competition). She's expanded the school size. And this year, St. Catherine even fielded its own hockey team.

"She gives the kids a very good academic foundation, and a moral foundation," said Mary Tenn, a Manchester lawyer who graduated from St. Catherine in the 1980s and now sends her two boys to the school.

Terri DiZillo, a mother who has sent three children through the school and has one still there, said Sister Janet knows school families as well as the children. If a family falls on hard financial times, Sister Janet will quietly do whatever possible to keep their children at the school, which charged $4,100 in annual tuition this year.

"She could tell you a story about every family in her school. She's that involved," DiZillo said.

A Mass and reception are planned for Sister Janet on May 31 at the church and school.

Sister Janet turns 80 next month. She said she agonized and prayed over whether to stay at the school, given her age and the pain that the stairs inflict on her knee.

She prayed the rosary for 54 days and received what she felt was a sign. Both her mother superior and the superintendent for Catholic schools told her they were concerned about her as a person.

"I love the kids, I love the parents. I love what I do," said Sister Janet, tearing up during a recent interview.Sister Janet grew up in south Manchester, the daughter of an insurance salesman. She attended local Catholic schools and took her final vows with the Sisters of Holy Cross in 1962. When she made her initial vows, her fellow sisters wore caps on their heads and a fan, a white plastic breastplate.She was a classroom teacher for 12 years before becoming principal at the now-closed St. George School on Pine Street.

She was named principal at St. Catherine in 1972. Under her guidance, the school added a gymnasium, cafeteria and classrooms in 1997. It became accredited in 2006. The school employs 22 teachers and has teams in basketball, cross country, track and hockey.

Through it all, Sister Janet maintained a closeness to the students, Tenn said. Tenn will drop her sons off, and she'll hear the principal ask about the previous day's spelling test.

"All the children have contact with Sister Janet. She's such a presence at the school," Tenn said.

"The kids are not afraid of Sister Janet, but they know they can't mess around," DiZillo said. "Everybody knows she's got her rules, and they need to follow them. She does it with a loving hand."

And she's not one to bend a rule. For example, the dress code. Many Catholic schools are quick to give dress-down days, particularly if a student brings a dollar for charity, DiZillo said.

Not that she'll never loosen up, But the last time Sister Janet allowed a dress-down day was when the Red Sox made it to the World Series.

"The way she does it, it works. I don't blame her," DiZillo said.

Sister Janet said students and families have changed in the 42 years she's been at St. Catherine.

She said 10 percent of her students come from broken families. It irks her that courts make rulings about custody without consulting her. "We have to pick up the pieces," she said.

And she said children appear too distracted; she mentioned non-stop sports calendars that have students in practice, games, tournaments, playoffs and then to the next season.

"The kids in '72 were here because they wanted to learn, and the parents wanted them to learn," she said.

Sister Janet lives in a house on River Road, which is supplied by the parish. She shares it with Sister Jeannette Landreville, who teaches religion at the school.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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