TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)
By Jeff Noble / staff writer
St. Camillus Academy was open Friday afternoon, but not for the students.
Instead, personnel with the Corbin Independent Schools were there to visit the grounds and look at the historic school’s facilities, as well as their inventory of books, equipment, furniture and other resources.
To greet them was a woman who knows St. Camillus well.
In fact, she taught there for 22 years, and is best known for starting the Montessori program at the academy back in 1992.
Sister Mary is her name.
Her warm smile and encouraging personality were a hit with all the Corbin teachers.
“I’m trying to organize things for the teachers to look at,” Sister Mary said in the classroom, looking at the scores of books, equipment and furniture that were once used by curious children and knowledgeable staff only a few months ago.
Shaunel Goley and Jane Chandler were looking at the items, and the room as well, to see if any of them could be used for the Corbin Preschool Center.
“My mom went to St. Camillus when they had the old school building from 1914. I remember when they tore the building down. This is a beautiful campus,” said Chandler, the principal of Corbin Preschool.
“I lived there in the old building for 12 years, and after it was torn down in 2009, they built a house on Barbourville Street where I lived for the last 10 years,” replied Sister Mary.
Leaving Chandler, Goley and the other teachers to continue looking at the classroom, Sister Mary moved down the hallway of what they called “The 2004 Building,” the newer of the two major structures on the St. Camillus campus. Several pieces of playground equipment — including a basketball goal — were set to the sides of the hallway.
She opened a door to a classroom, where the school had 1st grade and Montessori classes inside.
“At one point, we had three Montessori classes, but the last years, we were back to two. I think the economy had a lot to do with that,” Sister Mary noted.
She then closed the classroom door, and paused for a moment.
“It’s sad, but it will continue as education. And we’re happy about that,” she commented.
Just a few feet up the hallway was the cafeteria. The large room with lots of windows was a major part of the 2004 Building, and while the tables, chairs and other pieces of equipment were not there, the room held lots of memories.
All of them pleasant.
“The first day we moved in here, the kids saw several deer running through the soccer field while we were having lunch here. That was back in December 2004,” she stated.
The cafeteria was the focus of the 2004 building. It wasn’t just for eating, but for meetings and celebrations at St. Camillus.
“It was used for after-school care, Brownie and Girl Scout meetings, and academic programs for the older kids. There were the Christmas programs for the parents, too. We even had a sock hop in here. That was enjoyable,” said a smiling Sister Mary.
She stepped outside to a portion of the 26-acre campus that sets on a hill at the end of Roy Kidd Avenue. The playground, normally active with the sounds and actions of happy school kids, was quiet on the warm and humid day. Then she walked across the parking lot and went down to a sheltered area with picnic tables set up.
Sister Mary called it the “Outdoor Classroom.”
“We started with a greenhouse, and they we went on to having organic vegetable gardens, a butterfly garden, a trail that went around the property, and two wetlands where the children studied animals, plants and their habitats and life cycles. For the kids, we provided waders and boots, so they could get in the wetlands and study the plants, the animals and their surroundings. It made science exciting and fun. It also made them more aware of nature, and they read about it as well,” she remembered as she sat down.
Grants from the PRIDE organization made it all possible, she said. The first grant was in 2001 for the greenhouse, with the last one in 2011-12, which completed the Outdoor Classroom. In between those years, other PRIDE grants helped to build the trails, wetlands, the gardens, and other classroom pieces.
One of them was always a favorite with the youngsters.
“We set out bird feeders, and we also had ‘Tracking Boxes,’ which they loved. There was several inches of sand in the boxes, and the children would put scraps of food from the cafeteria, or put snacks, in the boxes. The next day, they would check what animals had been in there by examining the animal tracks. The tracks they found were often birds, deer, raccoon, dogs and cats. The kids thought bobcats got in there, and an occasional bear. I don’t think there were any bears or bobcats. The kids took good responsibility of taking care of the boxes every day,” she said.
Leaving the Outdoor Classroom, Sister Mary headed up the hill to the classroom buildings to meet with more Corbin school personnel. When she got to the pavement on the parking lot, she looked at the land in front of her and said, “It’s a beautiful place up here. Very peaceful.”
She met with Chandler and Jennifer Parsons, the principal of Corbin Middle School. Parsons was there to look at the equipment, furniture and books that were in the science lab of St. Camillus. To get there, Sister Mary took her to the older of the two buildings — “The 1973 Building,” — where the library is also located.
The building was locked and dark, but not for long.
Despite the heat and humidity outside, and the air conditioning being turned off in the building, it was surprisingly cool inside.
“The insulation in these buildings is so much better. That’s why it’s so cool,” she said, smiling.
As she took Parsons to the science lab, they passed through rows of textbooks, on tables and in shelves, stacked throughout the library.
The adjacent computer room was quiet as well.
Except for two people talking, nary a sound was heard in the building.
“We did inventory of the books and we’ll send an email to the other schools, to see if they’re interested in buying them. We’ve also had some parents inquire about them, possibly for homeschooling,” noted Sister Mary.
When Parsons returned from the science lab, they left the 1973 Building and went outside. Parsons went to the larger, 2004 Building, while Sister Mary sat down for a few minutes.
And she talked about how she came to St. Camillus nearly a quarter-century ago.
“I’m from northern Kentucky. Camp Springs, to be exact. And I went to the convent, St. Anne Convent which owned the property and ran the school here. I had a Montessori class at the convent when they filmed some of the movie ‘Rain Man’ there. We adults could see them filming, but we couldn’t bring the kids out there because the producers were afraid the kids would make too much noise. They were filming the scene where they brought out that ‘49 Buick Roadmaster convertible. It was the scene where Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, said to Tom Cruise, ‘I know that car!’”
After teaching at St. Anne, Sister Mary went to teach in Maryland. In 1990, she came to St. Camillus to teach elementary to the kids, and opened the Montessori school for three, four and five-year-old children in 1992.
In all, she spent 22 years on the hill. All of them good.
“That’s a long time, 22 years. It became home to me. I’ve had wonderful memories. Of the children, and of the parents. Wonderful memories ministering here. I’ve made lots of friends and I hope I’ve given them lots of live skills, because Montessori is an education not just for learning things, but learning how to live. For life,” she said.
In the summer of 2012, Sister Mary left St. Camillus and moved back to northern Kentucky — Fort Thomas, to be exact — to be near her family and to take some time off from teaching.
But, then again, she’s still learning.
“Now I can teach teachers. That’s because I’m becoming a credentialed trainer to teach Montessori to teachers in Kentucky,” Sister Mary stated.
But the bonds to her former school were still strong. She was saddened when the decision was made to close St. Camillus back in July. On Sept. 1, Sister Mary came back to Corbin. And on Sept. 10, in a special board meeting, the Corbin Board of Education approved the purchase of the academy site from the Sisters of Divine Providence for $1 million, to be paid over a five-year period, interest-free.
The property is expected to be the future site of Corbin Middle School.
The deal is pending approval from the Kentucky Department of Education. The Corbin Independent Schools has to complete 13 requirements for the deal to be approved.
It’s been said, “When one door closes, another opens.” And Sister Mary feels that’s what’s happened almost two weeks ago.
“I’m feeling the loss, because we’ve been here for more than 100 years. But I also realize continuing the school isn’t feasible any longer, because the number of sisters has dwindled. We don’t have as many women who are becoming sisters as we did in the past. We tried to keep it open, the Diocese tried, and this year the parents really tried to keep it open. But the school’s enrollment just wasn’t there. But I’m feeling good, because the mission of educating the children will continue, and the people of Corbin will have wonderful memories of St. Camillus. We’re very pleased about the deal, because the Corbin Independent Schools will make that possible for education to continue here on these grounds. Mr. McNeel (Ed McNeel, Superintendent of Corbin Independent) has been most gracious and sensitive. He is a compassionate man and sensitive to our feelings, as we’re going through this process. He cares about education, and the people involved,” she stated.
A moment later, she noticed the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron St. of Animals, that was standing a few feet away between the buildings near the main entrance. And she quietly made a comment.
“That statue of St. Francis was bought with the money the children raised from taking care of pets.”
Sister Mary is helping with the transition of the school to Corbin Independent, and will be here off-and-on during the transition. She feels that in her mind and in her heart, the land and buildings that St. Camillus sits on will be in good hands.
“I do miss the activity of the children being here. I miss the parents, the faculty, and the school personnel. It’s kind of empty without them. But I do have hope. This has a been a seat of learning for over a hundred years. The education will continue. And the children will grow, and learn. On this property.”