Daughter of Charity named new St. Peter Claver principal
Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig had never spent time in the South until this year.
The 49-year-old Daughter of Charity initially couldn’t see herself moving to Macon, but that’s before she visited St. Peter Claver Catholic School.
“I came thinking, ‘There’s just no way,'” Hillig admitted. On the second day she was in Macon, the Queens, N.Y., native changed her mind.
“There’s just no way not to,” she said Thursday during her second visit to finalize her contract. “Having said yes, there’s a peacefulness to it.”
Leaving her post at the urban DePaul Catholic School in Philadelphia will be difficult.
After 13 years there, some of her first students now are enrolling their own children at DePaul, which is one of the highest performing of Philadelphia’s Independence Mission Schools, said Al Cavalli, CEO of the nonprofit organization that manages 15 Catholic elementary schools in the city.
“Sister Cheryl, being one of those wonderful Daughters of Charity, no burden is too great for the school and the children,” Cavalli said. “It’s remarkable to see them in action.”
Hillig felt the call to religious life when she was in the sixth grade.
Two years after graduating with a degree in elementary and special education from St. John’s, a Catholic university in Jamaica, N.Y., she joined the Daughters and continued teaching.
Since 1995, Hillig has focused on school administration and earned the Distinguished Principal Award from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2009.
St. Peter Claver Catholic Church’s pastor, Dan Melaba, is excited about Hillig’s arrival this summer.
“Sister has a very good track record,” Melaba said. “She’s competent, and she shows it. And there’s a friendliness about it that our kids need and will embrace.”
Hillig will replace Sister Margaret Mary Scally, another Daughter of Charity who was missioned to Delaware last summer.
Dave Hayden, a deacon, has served as interim principal of the Pleasant Hill neighborhood school on Ward Street off Vineville Avenue.
“I think St. Peter Claver is on the grow,” Hayden said of the school with about 150 students from preschool through eighth grade. “I’ve really seen some of the great kids we have and some of the most wonderful parents I’ve seen at any school.”
One family drives all the way from Sparta every day, he said.
Hayden’s been known to brag that it is the most “Catholic” school in the Catholic diocese because of its social, racial, religious and geographic diversity.
Without many school-age children in the St. Peter Claver parish, most of the students come from outside the Catholic faith.
“Most Catholic schools, it’s all about the parish,” he said. “This Catholic school is all about the community.”
Hillig’s current school also is 67 percent non-Catholic, Cavalli said, and 98 percent black.
“I’ve always worked in an African-American community. I don’t even think in color at this point,” Hillig said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
What matters most to her is coaching students to do their best and develop personal responsibility for their own actions.
“I want the students to be proud of where they are and who they are,” she said.
The parish began as an African-American mission parish founded in 1888 by the Lyon brothers who built St. Stanislaus College several blocks away on Pio Nono Avenue.
The brick school tucked behind the church is celebrating its 101st year.
“This has been such a rich school and a rich tradition,” said Roz McMillan, president of the school’s advisory board. “We have to make sure our legacy and product are known in the community.”
McMillan, whose husband and children attended St. Peter Claver school, sees the new principal as a visionary who is familiar with the school’s challenges.
Sister Cheryl recognizes a lot of untapped potential at the private school where most students receive tuition assistance from private donations and fundraisers.
“The students might be disadvantaged, but no less capable,” she said. “Our expectations are extremely high.”
She won’t micromanage and will encourage faculty to discuss ideas and concerns, she said. “I really want the community to know it’s going to be a new day here.”
Hillig is looking forward to learning more about Southern culture and already is a fan of fried chicken. But grits? Not so much, she said.
She’s looking forward to a slower pace than the big city, enjoying the hospitality she’s heard so much about and getting involved in the community.
She won’t seem like a stranger, Cavalli said.
“It won’t take long for the community to fall in love with Sister,” he said. “She really is wonderful.”
She has been serving in neighborhoods with some of the highest crime and poverty rates, he said.
“Her results with inner-city children is remarkable.”