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St. Thomas Aquinas principal retires

When students return to St. Thomas Aquinas on Aug. 27, Sister Marie Rose Gusatus won't be leading the longtime Catholic school in Hampden.

Gustatus, one of the last remaining nuns to serve as principal of a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has retired after 32 years as principal of St. Thomas Aquinas.

"I wasn't feeling as strong as I did. It's time for a young person," Gustatus, 70, said in late July, sitting in the convent next door to the school — one of the last remaining convents in the archdiocese. She said she will continue to live there and plans to volunteer at the school.

A School Sister of Notre Dame for 50 years, Gustatus grew up in St. Cecelia's parish in west Baltimore, graduated from the College of Notre Dame with a Bachelor of Science degree in education and then earned a Master of Arts degree in administration from Loyola College.

She entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in September 1960 and worked at a Catholic school in Pittsburgh from 1962-70, teaching first grade. Through the 1970s, she taught at St. Mary's in Annapolis, and rose to vice principal.

She still wore a nun's habit when she joined St. Thomas Aquinas School in September 1980, at age 38.

Gustatus led the parish school through its biggest crisis in 2010, when the archdiocese closed 13 of its 64 schools in the city to save money. St. Thomas, then largely a neighborhood school, was a candidate for closure, but survived and has since taken in students from schools that didn't make the cut, including Shrine of the Sacred Heart School in Mount Washington.

She thinks she is the longest-serving principal of the nearly 140-year-old school.

Retiring, she said, is "a good feeling. I feel like I've given all that I can give."

But one of her last acts as principal was to meet with archdiocese officials to try to figure out how to increase enrollment. That troubled Gustatus as she prepared to step aside because she remembered her early years, when St. Thomas, then a prekindergarten through fifth grade school, had a healthier enrollment of around 200 students.

"There was a waiting list in those days," she said. "It was very community-oriented because all of the children were local."

The school expanded through eighth grade about 15 years ago, but now has only about 130 students, down 30 from last year, even after taking in students from the closed Catholic schools, including 30 from the Shrine of the Sacred Heart School, Gustatus said.

Watching enrollment dwindle "was depressing," she said. Students whose families once were willing to pay tuition of $5,300 per year for in-parish residents and $6,300 for out-of-parish residents were leaving, "not because they wanted to, but because their families couldn't afford it anymore."

Her only regret is that she couldn't stem the enrollment decline.

"I want to see it grow back to where it used to be," she said.

One bright note, she said, is that, "We're a more diverse school now. That's the way the world is."

The school is also more technologically advanced, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Hampden-based Marion I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation in 2011, "to support the purchase of computer equipment, software and teacher training," according to the foundation's website.

"We have a lot of tradition and a lot of technology." Gustatus said.

She is happy that she will continue to be a part of the life of the school and its special occasions — including the annual spaghetti dinner, a fundraiser known as much for her homemade sauce as for the money it raises.

"I did say to them that I would make my spaghetti sauce for the dinner this spring."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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