Sister Veronica Marie Buckmaster, O.P., the new principal of St. Patrick School in McEwen, is stepping into her first assignment as a principal in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
“We’re not doing this on our own strength but with the Lord,” said Sister Veronica Marie, who started the new school year at St. Patrick on Aug. 10.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” she said. “Given the situation, people are so warm and welcoming and supportive.”
St. Patrick School, established in 1856, is the oldest school in the Diocese of Nashville and has always been an important part of the parish and community. Since its opening, the school has been closed only one year during the Great Depression, “and we were back up and running again,” Sister Veronica Marie noted.
Faculty, staff and parents are bringing that same commitment to the school even as the COVID-19 pandemic forces changes to protect teachers, students and their families from the virus.
“The parents are really dedicated to their school and committed to making school happen this year,” Sister Veronica Marie said.
“We want to have in-person education in the safest environment we can,” she said. Like all other schools in the diocese, St. Patrick has adopted protocols and precautions to protect teachers and students.
St. Patrick is one of the smaller schools in the diocese, which in this case is an advantage, Sister Veronica Marie said, because there is enough room in the school’s classrooms to maintain a safe social distance.
Teachers and students are wearing masks and face shields, and “there’s a lot of hand washing,” she said.
The classrooms also have doors leading directly outside the building, which makes it easier to move classes outdoors when possible. The sixth-grade teacher even built a whole outdoor classroom with tree stumps as chairs and a rustic style podium for the teacher.
St. Patrick’s teachers are trying to have class outside as much as possible to allow students to spread out and give them a break from wearing masks. “It’s hard for them to wear a mask all day,” Sister Veronica Marie said.
“Our teachers feel very safe,” and are very supportive of the school’s protocols, she added.
“We are committed to in-person education this year because we know it’s best for our children.”
Beyond the academic advantages of in-person learning, it’s also best for the emotional health of children, Sister Veronica Marie said.
If St. Patrick does have to move to distance learning, as they did last spring, Sister Veronica Marie wants to get back to in-person learning as soon as possible.
Even with distance learning, some students have fallen behind academically because they have been away from the classroom for so many months. “Our kids lost a whole quarter of school,” Sister Veronica Marie said.
“We want to make up those academic gaps from last year and make sure our kids are prepared for next year,” she said.
Throughout the year, St. Patrick will focus on teaching about the theological virtue of hope. The school is in the middle of a three-year “Virtues in Practice” program: a year of faith, a year of hope and a year of charity. “We happen to be in the year of hope,” Sister Veronica Marie said.
The goal of the year of hope is to teach students what true hope is – a hope for eternal salvation “and the grace to get there,” she said.
She pointed to the Old Testament verse from Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
“We’re not despairing at all,” Sister Veronica Marie said. “We’re very hopeful the Lord is going to help us walk through this.”
‘This is where I want to be’
Sister Veronica Marie has been a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia for 11 years and has taught in the congregation’s schools for 10 years, including assignments at St. Henry School in Nashville, St. Vincent de Paul School in Denver, St. Gertrude School in Cincinnati, and St. Mary’s School in Jackson, Tennessee.
She studied education in college before joining the congregation. “When I went to college I didn’t know if I wanted to do teaching,” Sister Veronica Marie said. “Once I stepped into the classroom, I realized on a professional level, this is where I want to be.
“As a sister it makes even more sense,” she said. “Introducing students to the Lord is just a privileged place to be.”
“It’s a different way to preach the Gospel, but an authentic way,” Sister Veronica Marie said of teaching in a Catholic school. “It’s a way to reach out to parents to walk with them in their faith, as well as students and faculty.”
“I’m blessed that my interest in teaching as a profession and my life as a sister coincided,” she added.
As Sister Veronica Marie moves from the classroom to the principal’s office, “My job is to make sure the teachers can do their job and create an environment where learning is supported and not interrupted,” she said.
Creating a Catholic culture at the school begins with the principal and ripples through the rest of the school, she said. “Religion is not something just for the religion class but for everything we do.”