(The following column was written by Peter Finney Jr. and published in the Clarion Herald on May 19, 2012. Mrs. Silva passed away this week following a lengthy battle with cancer.)
The book has been there for years, squeezed into the bookcase in her tiny principal’s office, the one with the cinderblock walls just to the left of the front entrance to St. Michael Special School. Jane Silva pulls the “The Blue Rose” by Gerda Weissmann Klein from the shelf and begins reading.
Silva has the most important parts memorized, but opening the book is the way she presses her hand once again into the hand of one of the most revered Catholic educators in the history of the Archdiocese of New Orleans – School Sister of Notre Dame M. Lillian McCormack, who opened St. Michael’s in 1965 for developmentally disabled students.
Sister Lillian, Silva’s aunt, was a woman of faith, determination and vision, and she knew every word in the English language except “no.” She had read “The Blue Rose” in 1974 and instantly appropriated the title as the perfect name for her annual fund-raising ball, which, along with the “Chefs’ Charity for Children,” helped the school pay its bills.
“Have you ever seen a blue rose?” Sister Lillian wrote in blue ink in the invitations to the ball each year. “One does not exist. But if there were such a thing as a blue rose, with what care would it be nurtured? Our children are that special.”
When Sister Lillian died in 2000, the stories came flooding out about the New Orleans nun and her blossoming garden of blue roses and how her ability to tell a story melted hearts and opened wallets.
Absolutely no one could tell her no. There was the time Sister Lillian needed City Council approval to tear down two old, termite-infested homes that the school was using as classroom space but which she felt needed to go to build a new wing. Even though Sister Lillian had contacted the previous homeowners and gotten their permission, historic preservationists came out to block the move.
Silva recalls Sister Lillian pulling out her violin and, with a plaintive smile, urging the City Council members not to “endanger” her special needs children.
“That poor little man from the historic district got up and said, ‘There’s truly nothing I can say to follow Sister Lillian – so, whatever you decide, you decide,’” Silva said. “Then it was a 7-0 vote, take the buildings down, and the next day they were gone.”
The untold story was that when the bulldozers came, they moved a cornerstone over to the side, and Sister Lillian and Silva sat atop it watching the buildings come down. Sister Lillian installed a plaque honoring the homeowners in the new wing.
“They were very happy to see this being used for her children,” Silva said. “So, she had a business sense, but that was also tempered with the love she had for people.”
Silva, who started as a teacher at St. Michael’s in 1976, didn’t know what might become of the school after its legendary foundress passed away in 2000. But over the last 12 years, a school board and hundreds of donors, big and small, have kept Sister Lillian’s blue roses thriving. There are 193 students ranging in age from 6 to 50. In nearly 50 years, the school has served almost 6,000 students.
And now, Silva herself is retiring after 35 years at the school – 40 if you count her summers as a college student when she would volunteer, along with many of her siblings and cousins. Silva is battling cancer, and she will become principal emeritus.
Now, the kids she has wrapped in a bear hug to calm and reassure them after a tantrum are opening doors for her as she walks down the hallway using a walker.
“As any cancer patient will tell you, as you get further into the process, it’s not in my hands but in God’s hands,” Silva said. “If something happens, wonderful, whether it’s two weeks or two years or two months. I feel at peace because so many people have been so loving. Maybe it’ll be a miracle. Maybe it won’t be. In the meantime, we’ve got these new FEMA windows coming in.”
Silva has been uplifted by the veteran St. Michael’s teachers who have showered the blue roses with love, day after day, and by the parents, who are scared about their children’s future. Sister Lillian always told everyone that these children, who cannot sin, are a glimpse of heaven.
“She used to say, ‘When you reach your hand to this child, you reach your hand to God. Take this baby’s hand because he’s going to heaven,’” Silva said. “It’s been my privilege to be able to continue that mission, because it is all about the children. We help parents understand the beauty of their child.”
As Silva walks into the empty gym, she reflexively moves the thermostat up to 78, where it should be with no one inside, and turns off the lights.
“I’m hoping I’m an example that even if you’re sick or not feeling well, you always have to do your best and you have to be happy and holy,” Silva said. “This is truly when your faith shows. I hope there really is a heaven, because I’ve spent 35 years telling this crew we’re all going to heaven.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate the funeral Mass for Silva on Friday, Sept. 7, at 11:30 a.m. at St. Dominic Church, 775 Harrison Ave., New Orleans. Visitation will be from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.