Sister Maria carried the water for AOL’s new campus

A favorite quote of Salesian Sister Maria Colombo comes from St. John Bosco, founder of her order, that she rephrases as: “I go ahead as circumstances dictate and as the spirit inspires.”

Whether as teacher, administrator, retreat formation leader or director of development, Sister Maria, a nun since 1980, has rolled with the spirit.

This time around, she is leaving her post as director of development at the Academy of Our Lady in Marrero to become education commission coordinator for Salesian schools within the Eastern Province. She said she was invited to create “a systematic plan for Salesian formation for all collaborators (faculty, etc.), anything principals need to help faculty understand and live the Salesian spirit.”

Sister Maria first came to Louisiana in 1984 as a teacher for two years at Immaculata High School in Marrero. She returned to Louisiana again in 1999 as a teacher at Immaculata.

“I had black hair when I came back to Marrero,” Sister Maria laughed, now sporting salt and pepper hair.

Overcoming Katrina
By 2003, she became principal. Just two years later, she admits facing her toughest challenge – the rebuilding of the school and Salesian education after Hurricane Katrina.

Wind-driven rain in the library and a burst water valve at Immaculata in the aftermath of Katrina caused massive flood and mold, requiring major gutting of the campus. Astuteness and determination had Sister Maria reopening the school in early October and accepting students, including boys, from schools in worse shape.

With families scattered nationwide, school systems had to quickly decide their future.  One such resolution in the Archdiocese of New Orleans was to merge the all-girls’ Immaculata and Archbishop Blenk high schools and have the Salesians run it at the Immaculata campus, with Sister Maria as principal.

“Don Bosco left a legacy that we work with the church, and if that’s what the church said for us to do, that’s what we did,” Sister Maria said.

Before the merger, she spent a year as principal at Blenk to infuse the Salesian spirit among the student body.

Sister Maria said she worked tirelessly with students, faculty and alumni of both Blenk and Immaculata to create a smooth merger. Inevitably, the two schools discovered a commonality in their devotion to Mary.

“As soon as we named that, people calmed down,” she said.

That connection to Mary led to the name of the new merged school, “Academy of Our Lady.” Student councils from both schools picked the Latin word “Fiat,” meaning “Let it Be Done,” as the motto and designed the school crest using “Mary Help of Christians,” a nod to the women’s religious order founded by St. John Bosco. They are known as the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.

“I wanted the students (no matter what school they were from) to have a sense that this was ours,” she said.

As principal, she further unified AOL by recreating Blenk’s courtyard with their Blessed Virgin Mary statue, and had valedictorians and salutatorians from both schools selected the first two years.

Concentration on new campus
By 2010, the archdiocese finalized plans to build a new campus for AOL. Moving where the spirit inspired, Sister Maria stepped down as principal to become director of development to concentrate on the coordination of FEMA rebuild funds from Hurricane Katrina to build this new site.

Seven years in the making, the new campus anticipates an opening in late December.

Sister Maria, who will turn 60 this year, thinks she’s leaving Academy of Our Lady in good hands. With Salesian Sister Michelle Geiger as principal, the academic majors program was established, as was a concentration on STEM majors (science, math, English). Both have attracted new students. Craig Kirtland will continue overseeing new campus construction as director of the Office of Institutional Advancement.

“It’s time to move on; everything is in place,” she said about her new position. “It gives me a sense of peace.”

She will spend the next year traveling to schools in the province – from Louisiana to Illinois and New York to Miami – for evaluation and discovery. Her first stop: a retreat and Salesian faculty in-service in August at The Academy of Lady.

Her new workplace is at the Provincial office in New Jersey (near family in New York), but she insisted on living near children, so her home will be the Mary Help of Christians Academy Convent.

Of all positions she’s held, Sister Maria considers her most impactful role came while teaching theology at Immaculata. She sees herself as a teacher first and views her new post as a teaching job in disguise, just with older students.

“I will miss the kids most,” she said about leaving the West Bank. “The kids keep you grounded. They are a constant reminder of why you are here (as educators).  … The kids here (in Marrero) are really grateful. They are not demanding. They are wonderful young ladies.”

She predicts the growth of Catholic schools on the West Bank with the new AOL campus and nearby Immaculata Elementary middle school moving to AOL’s former campus to make room for an expansion of its nursery program.

“I love the West Bank and hope all the Salesian schools will prosper,” she said.

Friends have already bid Sister Maria goodbye, and she left them with an open invitation to visit her just over the bridge from New York City.

“The beauty of it is when they come to visit, they can look me up and stay at the convent for free,” Sister Maria said.

 Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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