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‘Strong’ leadership: Veteran principal perseveres through violence and a pandemic

The back-to-school season is typically consumed with thoughts of crisp uniforms, school supplies and getting to know new teachers and classmates. This year, however, students, teachers and faculty are facing challenges and questions never imagined.

“This year may require some adjustments, but we will continue to focus on our mission and philosophy, so that our families should expect what Sacred Heart has been doing for 108 years—having faith in God and faith in every child,” says Sister Frances Salemi, S.C., the principal of the Jersey City school.  

Sacred Heart is no stranger to change.

“The school has survived a depression, two world wars, Vietnam, poverty, the drug culture, massive migration from the city, followed by waves of new immigrants to it, and the never-ending stresses of a shifting urban landscape,” recounts Sister Frances.        

However, she adds that the school community was tested this past academic year in a way never before experienced in its history. “By March, the term ‘shelter in place’ had taken on more meaning for our school family than anyone would like to admit.”                         

On Dec. 10, 2019, the Sacred Heart building became the backdrop of a shooting at a kosher supermarket across the street that claimed the lives of three people and both of the shooters, who had also shot and killed a Jersey City police detective prior to the market attack.

When the 200 students of Sacred Heart were forced into lockdown that day, they benefited from the experienced leadership of Sister Frances, a 46-year veteran of the school. Her retelling of the events is simultaneously agonizing and inspiring, including the decision to break shelter-in-place protocol.

“On-the-spot decisions had to be made that violated the rulebook, but saved lives. That was a challenge. Do you continue to do what you’ve been taught—remain in shutdown, lock doors, do not open doors for anyone—or what an individual situation seems to demand,” sister reflects. “After observing the situation for about 30 minutes, I made the critical decision to have all the classes that were on the side of the building facing the shooter crawl across the hall to what appeared to be safer rooms. This required the staff to make judgments contrary to the rules of a shutdown.”

Police arrived and took over the situation. After about four hours of silent lockdown, the entire school was moved into the basement, Sister Frances says. Then, they were moved in small groups out the back door of the basement and into the adjoining church, where they prayed the “Our Father” together.

“Our students rose to the occasion, listening to directions and displaying remarkable seriousness,” Sister Frances remarks. “Teachers later reported that some of our primary grade students even held hands and offered hugs to classmates who seemed particularly frightened.”

It would be well into the evening before parents were reunited with their children. When the school held a meeting for parents in the days following the shooting, Sister Fran expected it to be a difficult and contentious one. To the contrary, those in attendance were “filled with thanks and praise.” “As one mother who had lost a son to gang violence the year before said, ‘Sister, you always told me that you would keep my children safe … and you were good to your word. Thank God for Sacred Heart, and thank you.’”

Then just three months later, another change.

“No sooner had we replaced our windows and said goodbye to the counselors who helped our students deal with the trauma and distributed ‘Sacred Heart Strong’ bracelets to all the children when the pandemic hit,” Sister Frances says.

Schools across the archdiocese had to adapt quickly to remote instruction, but the teachers at Sacred Heart had the added challenge of finding ways to implement off-site instruction for children who often lack basic technological aids and whose parents or guardians were now coping with the sudden loss of household income.

They responded with “remarkable creativity,” sister says. Primary grade teachers assembled learning packets to be picked up from boxes left outside the school. When parents were unable to pick up or return student work, teachers made deliveries and pickups as needed. Teachers of older students led virtual lessons, beginning each session with a prayer. As the closure of schools continued longer than initially expected, many teachers went so far as to conduct home visits on which they greeted their students from a safe distance on the sidewalk.

As is the case with any Catholic school, prayer and faith remain central aspects of daily life. Asked how she and the Sacred Heart community managed to cope during the last school year, Sister Frances concisely responds, “I pray.” She goes on to elaborate on the importance of being one with her community: “My door is always open. I am there for any student, parent or child at any time. I’ve come to realize that ‘coping’ starts by someone being there for another person—just there. Being present to each other is so important at Sacred Heart.”

Presence appears to be what makes all the difference at Sacred Heart, not just that of Sister Frances but also of the Sisters of Charity, who co-sponsor the school, and the many staff members who have served its students throughout the years. Asked of her tenure there, Sister Frances calls it a ministry in every way. “Each day is spent living the corporal works of mercy. Every one. We preach the Gospels; we are a force for change.” Above all, she continues, is the ministry of presence. “As the years go by, the importance of presence—the school’s, the staff’s and mine—in the community and in the lives of our children seems to be the most essential and effective ministry of all.”

After 56 years in education, Sister Frances still enthusiastically refers to her students as the most rewarding part of her daily work. Their resilience and ability to adapt and overcome obstacles are, in her eyes, a testament to the fact that the values of Catholic education make a difference.

While 2020 has been trying thus far, it also brings her 60th anniversary as a religious sister. Sister Fran, however, remains humble as ever, insisting she does not enjoy the limelight. In fact, when asked how it makes her feel to be praised and recognized for her extraordinary leadership (she was the recipient of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell Peace Award for 2020), she quickly redirects attention to her students and staff. “As a school community, we work like a family. Everyone does their job and watches out for everyone else,” she says. “It’s never ‘your class’ at Sacred Heart, it’s ‘our students’ and ‘our children.’ Most [of our] upper grade children have been the students of the primary teachers when they were younger. When it comes to caring about and caring for the children, my teachers are simply the best.”

While Sister Frances’ priority remains the safety and health of students and staff, she is looking forward to the school year ahead, whatever it may bring. “I look forward to the bond and spirit of our school family. And I look forward to hearing, ‘Sister France!’ and almost being knocked over as one of the little ones runs up for a hug.”