By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — As always, Sister Carol Ann Kleindinst has a lot to do.
She has to memorize 600 names by Fall, leave a work seven years in the making and prepare to tackle a much larger project back in her home territory with her community of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in New York.
The going-away parties are over and the children of Charleston Catholic School have bid her farewell. In between last-minute business and packing she spent few moments talking about the difficulty of leaving what has been her dependent — a school full of hundreds of children, a family.
A family indeed, Sister Carol Ann said that starting a school from the ground up is like having a child. She helped a newly founded institution take its first steps in 1991 after the closing of the Cathedral school and Sacred Heart.
With teacher, parent and diocesan support, she led the way to create a successful academic program concentrating on arts for imagination and sciences for critical thinking that fostered award-winning students. Their motto was “Discover the imagination, imagine the discoveries.”
Fed by five parishes on the Peninsula, the school featured a longer day starting in fifth grade where children could take an additional art class or fine arts activity for younger students.
That sense of family was strongly promoted. The classes were limited to 25 students. They were given responsibilities for one another. Seventh-graders were assigned a kindergarten child to work with on projects or reading. All students were encouraged to view the school as they would their home, take part, and grow up together. They attended Mass every week. Discipline was not a problem.
Sister Carol Ann was proud of what was accomplished in her tenure. It took three years to start making its mark, but Charleston Catholic eventually had to start turning people away, all the desks were full. It grew at such a pace that they thought of adding on to the existing buildings but decided quality of education was their first priority.
“There wasn’t a paper clip when I started,” she recalled. “I didn’t even have an office or a desk. It’s amazing what we have now. We’ve had a lot of people put a lot of confidence in us.”
Some of that assurance can be seen in the 18 new computers with Internet access. The school is also in the process of hiring a new technology coordinator to teach computer skills and typing.
However, other children needed Sister Carol Ann. She is leaving because her community, Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, asked her to consider their very first American mission school in Lockport, N.Y., which has had one of their order as principal since its inception 135 years ago. They did not want to break that continuum of leadership.
Though she has lived in the Southeast for 16 years, Sister Carol Ann hails from Buffalo. She said her mother is delighted she will return to the North, but Charleston Catholic’s first principal will miss her southern home.
“I’m very sad,” she said. “But I’ve received so many beautiful wishes. You promise obedience when you make your vows and it really means something.”
Her memories will mean something too. Some of those have been permanently inscribed on a quilt decorated by the school children. Every single student also wrote her a letter.
One child in particular in summing up one of Sister Carol Ann’s greatest accomplishments penned that the principal had helped her know who she was inside.
The interim principal will be Our Lady of Mercy Sister Bridget Sullivan, pastoral associate at the Cathedral; news which Sister Carol Ann said she greeted with a huge sigh of relief.
“I feel the school is really solid and I don’t feel worried,” she said. “The reputation has grown, we have a solid faculty and we are financially solid now that we have started a development program.”
Like a proud parent, Sister Carol Ann said that the older students will speak well for Charleston Catholic’s reputation as they are a source of joy and distinguish themselves in leadership and service.
“I think that’s good for the church,” she said.
But one of the more pertinent lessons that this educator has learned over the years is that children do change for the better.
“You are able to influence them,” she emphasized. “As a high school principal I did not know how much you can do with younger children, they are so malleable.”
Which makes it that much harder for Sister Carol Ann.
“I’ve really come to know these children and their families,” she said with feeling. “That’s the hardest part of leaving,” she said. “Families have devoted themselves to this school. These families were brought into something that they were not sure was going to work. I admire them. It was a huge leap of faith.”