Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Persico is shown during her inauguration as president of Marywood University, Scranton, Pa. She had previously ministered in the Trenton Diocese, serving an eight-year tenure as vice principal and then principal of Holy Cross High School, Delran. Courtesy photo
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Persico is shown during her inauguration as president of Marywood University, Scranton, Pa. She had previously ministered in the Trenton Diocese, serving an eight-year tenure as vice principal and then principal of Holy Cross High School, Delran. Courtesy photo
faith legacy in the Diocese of Trenton, and beyond, is being celebrated this year.

“I count myself blessed to be a member of such a wonderful group of women religious,” said Sister Bernadette Thomas of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is marking its 175th anniversary.

At one time or another, Sacred Heart Parish and School, Mount Holly; Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park; Incarnation Parish and School, Ewing; Holy Cross High School, Delran, and the diocesan Chancery have been graced with the guidance and leadership of the community. 

Several members who formerly ministered in the Diocese shared thoughts about their vocation in religious life, work experiences both in the Diocese and beyond, and the rich legacy their community has established in serving God’s people since 1845. 

“I stand on the shoulders of hundreds of strong and deeply spiritual women who have served their fellow human beings no matter their educational backgrounds, color, race, religion, economic status or any other differences,” said Sister Bernadette, who served for 30 years in Holy Cross High School.

Community’s Roots

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation was founded with an educational mission Nov. 10, 1845, in a log cabin in Monroe, Mich., by Father Louis Florent Gillet, a Redemptorist missionary, and Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, a biracial American and  founding member of Baltimore’s Oblates of Providence, the first congregation of women religious of color.

They have since divided into three congregations: the original in Michigan as well as two in Pennsylvania – Immaculata and Scranton. The sisters continue to minister in Catholic schools and parishes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Peru. 

The sisters from the Scranton congregation served in the Diocese of Trenton from the mid-1930s through 2018; their first assignment was Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, where they served until 1990. In 1943, Trenton’s Bishop William A. Griffin invited the congregation to Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, to begin a regional catechetical center there and nine other locales, including Hainesport, Medford Lakes, Rancocas, Masonville, Jobstown, Pine Grove, Red Lion, Browns Mills and New Lisbon.

The success of the catechetical center promoted the construction of Sacred Heart Regional Elementary School, which the sisters staffed from 1944 until the 2000s. In later years, the Scranton sisters also served in Holy Cross High School, and two went on to serve in diocesan positions. Sister Ann Fulwiler was delegate for religious and vice chancellor, and Sister Joanne Campanini was director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services. 

Sisters from the Immaculata community began serving the Diocese in Incarnation School, Ewing, in 1956. Over the years there have been other sisters who served in leadership roles within diocesan administration.

The IHM community also has a special connection with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who was educated by the sisters as a grammar school student in Our Lady of Grace School, Penndel.

In a recent tribute to the IHM Sisters, Bishop O’Connell stated, “The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary had a profound influence on my early life and my vocation.  I will be forever grateful to them.”

Fulfilling Vocations 

Thinking back to 1966 when she entered the Scranton IHMs, Sister Bernadette said she was drawn to the joy and hospitality of the sisters. She also viewed religious life as a way to “thank God for all the many gifts I had received from him.” 

“I wanted to help others know how much they were loved by God,” said Sister Bernadette, who currently works in the archive office at the IHM Center in Scranton. 

Like Sister Bernadette, Sister Claudette Naylor has a long history with Holy Cross High School, teaching science there for 23 years. She noted that two years ago, at age 84, she was still in the classroom doing what she loved – teaching science – physics, biology and chemistry. 

“It has been 65 good years of a prayer life, friends and many classes that I could challenge students in,” said Sister Claudette, who continues to keep busy at the IHM Center reception desk.

Sister Donna Marie Korba, who served in the Delran high school from 1988 to 1994, said her desire to serve the elderly and disadvantaged began in her teenage years. She said she was drawn to the IHMs because of their education, dedication to service and spirit of hospitality.

Entering the IHM community in Scranton in 1979, Sister Donna said that over the years, “Religious life has taken me to places I never thought of going, and [it] has called me to develop skills and talents that I never would have dreamed I had.”

Her service has included a mix of teaching art and religion and serving in Hispanic ministries in Camden; East Stroudsburg, Pa., and Chichicastenango, Guatemala. She is currently director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the IHM community in Scranton.

In addition to teaching art, religion and Spanish, she added that her connection to the Latino community also began during her tenure in Delran, when she was searching for a parish community – ultimately joining Christ the Redeemer, a Spanish-speaking community in Mount Holly.

“That is where I fell in love with the Latino community,” she said, adding that she believes that experience laid the foundation for her future missionary work in Guatemala.

“I have met wonderful people in all the ministries, people who have witnessed so much of God’s goodness,” she said. “I feel so blessed to be a member of the IHM congregation. As we move toward the future, even with smaller numbers, aging community members and changes in life, I feel that we have much to offer our world still.” 

Continuing Legacy

For Sister Mary Persico, who is beginning her fifth year as president of Marywood University, sponsored by her community in Scranton, it was becoming familiar with the history of the IHM community and the sisters’ support of human rights, social justice and the integrity of creation that inspired her to pursue a vocation.

“We lived in the moment from decade to decade, lovingly embraced the people we served in every way and celebrated the mission that calls us to be joyful, loving servants to the people we serve,” she said, adding that her own experience as an IHM had taken her to many continents and the far reaches of the United States.

Sisters Mary Persico served in Holy Cross High School as vice-principal from 1986 to 1987, and then as principal for seven years. 

“It was one of the highlights of my career and a place where I met many wonderful teachers, co-administrators, families and, of course, students,” she said, noting that during her tenure, Burlington County’s only Catholic high school staffed 12 sisters and graduated nearly 3,000 students.

“I like to think that collectively and in concert with all the administrators, teachers and staff, those 3,000 were prepared to meet the moral, professional, social and spiritual challenges that the next 30 years would bring,” she said. 

Reflecting on her community’s anniversary, Sister Mary Persico acknowledged that membership had dropped from the 1,100 dating back 50 years ago to 300 today.  However, she emphasized that “our presence, wherever we are, is still strong and vibrant. 

“Our commitment to people who need us is unwavering. I look back with no regrets and much pride in who we are and what we do,” she said.