Bishop O’Connell, assisted by Father Jason Parzynski, diocesan vocations director, blesses the saint statues outside St. Mary Academy.
Bishop O’Connell, assisted by Father Jason Parzynski, diocesan vocations director, blesses the saint statues outside St. Mary Academy.

In spite of the pandemic overshadowing much of its two-year presence as St. Mary Academy, the Manahawkin school has much to celebrate.

“When All Saints Regional Catholic School closed in June of 2019, I believe there may have been some doubt about the sustainability of a new Catholic school,” said Lizanne Coyne, St. Mary’s principal. “In just two short years, St. Mary Academy has grown from 167 students to more than 220. … We stand by our mission and believe that [this] is the place where children learn, grow, love and serve.”

Marking the 20th year since the original school building opened, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., celebrated Mass Sept. 19 with the school community in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin.

“I think it was important for the students and their families to see Bishop O’Connell support our school and help us celebrate such a milestone,” said Maureen Healey, St. Mary Academy first grade teacher. “His presence sent a message that Catholic schools are still a vital part of the teaching mission of the Church.”

“The children who were able to attend were thrilled to participate,” Coyne added, noting that several students acted as altar servers and brought up the gifts during the Presentation. “The parish adult choir, some of whom accompany the children in our First Friday Masses, sang beautifully throughout the Mass, helping to make it extra special.”

After Mass the Bishop blessed the St. Mary Academy building, as well as the five saint statues that represent the school’s five sending parishes: St. Mary; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Whiting; St. Pius X, Forked River; St. Francis of Assisi, Brant Beach, and St. Theresa, Little Egg Harbor. The school and parish picnic followed, with time for students and parishioners to visit with Bishop O’Connell.

Although St. Mary Academy was in session just six months before COVID-19 forced schools into virtual mode, Coyne proudly reported no learning loss during full-day in person instruction for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“I am extraordinarily proud of our entire school community – teachers and students – for their tireless efforts during the pandemic,” she expressed. “While the children were in masks, they benefitted greatly from the face-to-face instruction with their teachers. More than 80 percent of the school population maintained at or above grade level cognitive abilities.”

This year alone, St. Mary Academy added 92 new Pre-K through eighth grade students. “In an effort to remain open for in-person learning and to create a safe learning environment for our teachers and children, we did have to cap some of our classes, and therefore, have a waiting list for several of them,” Coyne said.

Ironically the 20-year-old building was built to meet pandemic demands, she attested. “[It] withstood COVID with safety precautions in mind: touchless sanitizing stations, touchless sinks, lights and toilets as well as large classrooms.”

Celebrating the two-decade anniversary of the foundation for St. Mary Academy was important for the school community, Coyne said, “to recognize the existence of a strong Catholic education, and to remind us all how truly blessed we are to be there, especially during such an unpredictable and challenging time.

“The celebration renewed our faith, restored our energy and launched us into another 20 years of providing top-notch education for our children,” she continued. “[Students] will experience a high-quality, faith-filled Catholic school … rich in tradition, [which] will prepare them for high school and beyond.”