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Cecil County Life

The little school with the big heart

Dec 31, 2020 11:49AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Drewe Phinny
Contributing Writer

One of the best ways to get an idea of how students felt about Immaculate Conception School (ICS) is to read the 2020 graduate profiles on the Facebook page.

Anna Jane Murphy’s favorite memory was “8th grade talent show night.” Her nickname at ICS was “Blondie.” Her greatest achievement was being inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. Her next stop is the Gunston School.

Hannah Rose King started at ICS in kindergarten (2011-2012). She remembers playing with the toy kitchen in the classroom during free time. One of her favorite memories is the fire truck coming at the end of every field day and spraying everybody in the parking lot. Hannah’s proudest achievement is getting first honors every year. Considered class klutz, Hannah’s next stop is Padua Academy.

What will she miss most? “How our class was one big family.” In keeping with the klutz thing, Hannah was voted “most likely to fall off the curb looking at her planner.”

Samantha Paige Delboy, who is also on her way to Padua Academy, will miss all her friends and was voted most likely to be an artist.

Devin Walsh started in ICS in preschool. His favorite memory was field day, and his greatest achievement was being on the Science-Math Olympiad team.

William Edwin Hill Pierce started in second grade. He remembers meeting his friend Trent, who was also new that year. He considers his greatest achievement “winning the Patriots Pen Award and getting invited to the awards ceremony. Mrs. MacInnes joined us to see me receive my award.” He’s going to Woodberry Forest School in Virginia.

Justin Raenald Marcos (nickname J. Dawg) was considered class clown and plans to attend high school in Canada.

The comments are typical of how kids live their lives through different layers of syllabi and silliness as they navigate their way through the first few years of formal education. The key is to combine the serious academia with a smattering of humor and recreation, producing a balanced approach which will prepare them for the future.

Immaculate Conception School was a Roman Catholic parochial school for children up to the eighth grade. It was located in Elton. The parish school was a part of the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. According to the school website, ICS was opened by the Ursuline Sisters in 1927, followed by the Glen Riddle Franciscans in 1930. The school reached its peak enrollment in the 1960s.

ICS drew students from the tri-state area of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania and was known for its “family feel, and loving, supportive community as well as strong academics.” Other priorities included small class size and individual attention, a safe, structured learning environment and a rigorous faith-based education that allows each child the best opportunity to grow intellectually, morally and spiritually.

Last year, Pastor James Yeakel and Bishop W. Francis Malooly met with faculty and staff and parents and guardians to discuss the future of the school. Despite a reportedly strong state-of-the-school presentation, the declining enrollment and rising costs led to the recommendation that ICS should close its doors in June 2020. As it turned out, the COVID-19 Pandemic forced the issue.

Another Facebook post that reveals the dedication of the ICS teachers and their love for the students is titled, “Special Surprise Delivery.”

The post reads: “Today the middle school teachers got in their cars and drove to each 8th grade student’s house to personally deliver their gowns, and lawn signs for graduation. Their surprise visit was as exciting as Ed McMahon delivering the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes check. The concern and affection these teachers have for their students at ICS is palpable. It’s as good as it gets! Thank you, Mrs. Gill, Mrs. Karleen, Mrs. MacInnes, and Mrs. Burchett for driving all the way to Chestertown and all over Cecil County to make the deliveries.”

According to The Dialog, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, serving Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Mary Gill is the longest-serving teacher at the school, having served just over 30 years. She has been to weddings, baptisms and other events. She has heard from some of her students lately.

Gill is quoted as saying, “When one of my former students found out we were closing, he offered me a job. I thought that was very touching. I told him I was retiring.”

But despite the sadness in the school community, Gill injected an optimistic note. “People should concentrate on all the positives Immaculate Conception has brought to Cecil County since 1927. The family atmosphere is unbelievable. We are truly the little school with the big heart, and I think we’ve left a big mark on the town of Elkton after 93 years. It’s kind of nice to know we helped mold them.”

Angela Maxwell, also featured in The Dialog story, has been at Immaculate Conception School for 23 years. Her family has a long history at the school and the parish. “It definitely hurts,” she is quoted as saying. “I’m heartbroken to the core. I started as a young lady and I basically grew up at ICS…It has such a strong faith base. My dad went there. He’s now 70. It’s sad to see it go. It’s part of who I am.”

One of Maxwell’s daughters graduated last year and another was in sixth grade during the 2019-2020 school year. “ICS is very rare. It’s just a special little school. We have our own little world. It’s truly the little school with the big heart.”

A statement submitted by Louise Northrop combined the praise and sadness expressed by many: “Time takes all but memories,” she wrote. “ICS gave me 25-plus years of good memories, strong leadership, dedicated teachers, loving students, a prayerful environment, working hard on subjects and a strong focus on the needs of others. I am sad that all the wonderful memories of the past will not be experienced by today’s children, parents and teachers.

Another testimonial included the following: “The little school with a big heart has never been a more perfect term to describe the school where our children were educated. The school instilled and reinforced values that our four daughters still utilize today raising their own families. Sister Ana Mae was fair but strict when she had to be. She knew her students and treated them all as individuals. The teachers provided the foundation for our daughters’ future education by providing rigorous curriculum that was invaluable. We are so sorry that future generations will not experience the ICS family community.”

Heather Crouse Quinteros said, “ I will be forever grateful for the exceptional teachers and staff that supported my daughter during her first academic experiences. Her thirst for learning can largely be accredited to them and to ‘The Little School with the Big Heart.’ ICS has always been a home to the children, filled with love and faith, that can never be replaced.”

From Karleen O’Brien-McCann: “Immaculate Conception has been part of our family since 2011 when my eldest daughter started preschool. Our family has had the pleasure of having four of our five daughters attend ICS. We love the challenging academics, faith-based environment, extracurricular activities, caring and attentive staff, and most importantly the family atmosphere. My daughters love how they knew everyone and everyone looked out for them. They developed close friendships and knew that the teachers were there to support them. I personally have been blessed to teach at the school for the past four years and the team was amazing to work with.  I loved the excitement of the students and their desire to learn. Their dedication to service and to the Catholic Faith is admirable for their age and is a reflection of the school’s mission. Being involved in the school and all of the fun activities like Science Explorers, Talent Show, Waffles and Raffles and the School Musicals has been extremely rewarding. Most importantly, it was great to be involved in activities with both my children and my students.  The blending of students, families, parish children, and ICS staff was such a beloved asset that is rare to find. Our family will miss ICS greatly, I had hoped that my five daughters would all graduate from ICS, but I am thankful for the time we had.”

Social media has been full of tributes to ICS, and this one from LinkedIn is representative of the widespread public admiration: “After nearly a century of educating, Immaculate Conception School will be closing a chapter in history. May the memories, the laughter, the community and the ultimate legacy left behind continue to warm our hearts and minds. Those who worked so very hard to build this school up and make it more than a few brick walls can never be thanked enough.”

A combined statement from Pastor Yeakel and principal Bill Schilling summarized their feelings as the school year ended for the final time at ICS: “We are proud of our unique history and the amazing accomplishments of our school community. Our school truly does have a big heart – and that heart will always live on through the legacy and the accomplishments of our graduates and parish community.”

What follows is a legacy/Obituary by Marcella- Murray Lockwood and her daughter, Jacqueline M. Lockwood:

Immaculate Conception School, (1927 – 2020) 

Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic School, “ICS,” “The Parochial School,” “The Parish School,” of Elkton, Maryland, quietly closed its doors for the final time on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 after a fierce battle with forces greater than itself. Immaculate Conception School was 93 years old.

Born in 1927 from humble beginnings, Immaculate Conception School evolved from a parish of spiritually dedicated residents of the Eastern Shore community of Cecil County. Several years prior to the parish church cornerstone etched 1846, neighboring Catholic farmers labored and hauled piles of stone and boulder from “Wilna Farm,” adjoining the now present home of the Oblate Fathers House in Childs, Maryland to Bridge Street. The widowed owner of the farm generously aided in purchasing the original parish property in town. The intent was for the construction of a church—one for the people, by the people. 

It quickly became evident that to continue to service this community, not only was this church a must, but a little Catholic school was needed for the children of Cecil to safely learn and grow. Thus, a four-room schoolhouse was formally introduced to this community by the early 1900s, before moving to Elkton Heights with the construction of a school campus fit for 500 pupils.

Generations of strong spiritual leaders aided in establishing such a remarkable foundation of an educational community, one that evoked both marvel and envy to all.

As the very first parochial school to exist on the entire Eastern Shore, this school was physically constructed in a similar manner to the church and opened in 1927, a dream and vision come to life by the faithful leadership of Father Arnd, in the footsteps of the Jesuit Fathers of Old Bohemia, Saint Francis Xavier Church, completely free of debt on the day it was opened, which was unheard of for the times. Through the guidance of the Ursuline Sisters of the Eastern Province, the Serviam spirit led the teaching ministry within the schoolhouse from 1927 to 1930, followed by the devoutly faithful and inspirational Franciscan spirit of the Glen Riddle Franciscan Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia, whose tireless community of women grew the school to the success and standards known today. 

This school and its legacy is survived by: the world contributions of hundreds of successful alumnae and alumni, many whom are multi-generational; those faithfully supportive parishioners, parents, guardians, and friends who fought for justice up until the end; the teachers and staff who devoted years to serving as Third Order lay-Franciscans, dedicating their life’s work to shaping and teaching the young minds of ICS beyond academics; as well as anyone who has or will have the privilege of knowing, working with, befriending or interacting with any of those individuals listed—a privilege of one who will undoubtedly experience the unrivaled preparedness, exceptional character, and dare-say magic of a “true ICS-er.” 

ICS was predeceased by the strong administrative leadership of Sr Anna May McFeeley, whose great vision, belief in the future of Catholic education, savvy business sense, straightforward attitude, and steadfast faith in each and every one of her students made ICS a force to be reckoned with. She lived the mission of Immaculate Conception School, never wavering in her vocation. 

Immaculate Conception School will remain a beloved pillar of the community of Cecil and surrounding counties. Families, friendships, legacies and traditions have all been forged through this institution which provided not merely a building for students to learn, but a gathering place for beloved memories to be made.

Excelling in every area imaginable, the record shows ICS outranking every other diocesan competitor for the better part of 30 years; scholastically in academics, true in faith, competitively in athletics, strength in service, and trust in spirit. As published by another source, it is stated that “the school’s greatest assets are the energized members of the school community.”

For a small school “the service performed by this community is remarkable” and “children at every grade level are learning lifelong lessons about their responsibility to offer service to others.” What was provided selflessly at Immaculate Conception School has often been imitated, yet never duplicated, and never to be experienced again; a grave misfortune of those left with its absence.

May it be known that such a conclusion to this chapter of this community’s history deserves so much more than a quiet turn of the page. While the loss of such a paramount cornerstone will be and should be mourned with utmost reverence, the legacy must be celebrated and the spirit of ICS remembered and continued by each of us. Memories of laughter from the playground, the camaraderie of teammates cheering during the infamous Field Day, the shuffle of classes through the halls, the call for first- or second-car-riders, the thud of the library book-drop, the adoration titles to Mary carefully lettered above every doorway, the click of the office loudspeaker… all little blessings to help us each keep the faith and remember how this little Catholic community has shaped the greater world! 

More so, perhaps the sweetest memory of ICS can best be illustrated and understood by one simple string of words; a statement crafted by a “true ICS-er” herself: Immaculate Conception School, “the little school with the BIG heart.”

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