Ten years ago, Sister Patricia McCarron joined the freshman class students as they walked through the archway and into Notre Dame Preparatory School for their first day of classes. It was her first day as headmistress.
And it was actually her second first day at Notre Dame Prep. Twenty years before, she had arrived as a brand new math teacher, setting out on a journey that led her to a religious vocation and growing responsibilities as an educational leader.
Now McCarron is in the midst of celebrating three anniversaries — 10 years as Notre Dame Prep's ninth headmistress, 25 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame and 30 as a teacher.
They have been years of great change in education, technology and the world. Home economics class is now a baking club. Opportunities have expanded in athletics, higher education and careers. The library has become a digital media center. Mimeographed tests have given way to online exams. Teachers have new methods for instruction and assessment.
McCarron remembers students studying what it meant to be a citizen back when she was a new teacher.
"Now it's 'What does it mean to be part of a global community?' " she said.
But the headmistress of the 142-year-old girls school emphasizes things that haven't changed.
"Perhaps the most important part of Notre Dame Prep is what has remained the same," she said and ticked off values, mission, academic excellence, spiritual growth and a call to justice. "That's become key to what's important to NDP," she said.
"Young girls are still young girls who have hopes and dreams and passions and challenges and aspirations that need to be fostered and empowered and loved," McCarron said.
And, the headmistress believes the single sex school is still vital in the 21st century as girls grow and learn, develop their skills of leadership, collaboration and cooperation.
"This environment is great for fostering that," she said.
"These are hard times for private schools," said Sister Pat McLaughlin, SSND, who served for eight years as chair of NDP's board of trustees while McCarron has been headmistress. But with McCarron at the helm, NDP has continued to have strong enrollment, good faculty and national and local recognition, McLaughlin said.
"It's a great school because of her leadership."
In the past 10 years, Notre Dame Prep has been named a National Blue Ribbon School, was listed a top workplace by the Baltimore Sun four times and a Top Engineering Source School by the University of Maryland's school of engineering.
Students and parents say it's a nurturing place to be.
"She's visionary," said Lisa Stromberg, a board member whose daughter Grace is a senior. Stromberg praised the headmistress's energy, enthusiasm and dedication.
"She wants it to be the best experience for everyone," said the Lutherville resident.
Siena Thrasher, a senior from Timonium, praised her headmistress as a strong leader so passionate about her faith and her school community.
"Over the past few years, I've been able to really live the Notre Dame experience. I've become a completely different person in so many ways," Thrasher said. "Sister Patricia has had a profound impact in shaping everyone."
McCarron, who grew up in Rodgers Forge and graduated from St. Pius X School, was the oldest of Gerard and Mary Elizabeth McCarron's four children. Her father was a longtime teacher, first at Calvert Hall College High School and then with Baltimore City Public Schools.
McCarron arrived at NDP with a brand new degree from Notre Dame of Maryland University. Chris Kaiser, now NDP's dean of students, served as her mentor that year. McCarron was "so bright and so skilled," Kaiser remembered. "I had an easy job."
They developed an easy friendship that picked right up again when McCarron returned as NDP's headmistress.
"She laughs and says you're by my side again. Truly, she is by my side," Kaiser said. "I learn from her every day."
Call to serve
McCarron doesn't remember the first time she said she wanted to be a School Sister of Notre Dame — but her mother saved her fourth grade autobiography where she stated at the end she wanted to be an SSND like her teacher Sister Karen "because she was so happy and full of joy and happy with what she was doing."
Although she felt slightly curious in college about becoming a sister, she pushed those thoughts aside until she was teaching at NDP.
"That curiosity turned to more of a commitment," she said. She left NDP, reluctantly she said, in order to prepare for religious life.
Her religious leaders sent McCarron for additional education, a master's degree at Loyola University Maryland and a doctorate at the Catholic University of America. Along the way, she took on more responsibilities at Seton Keough High School where she was assistant principal and at the College of Notre Dame (now Notre Dame of Maryland University) where she spent eight years as a professor and then associate academic dean. Then her provincial leader asked her to interview for the job at Notre Dame Prep.
"God has done great things in my life," McCarron said, noting that this anniversary year has led her to reflect on the people and places she has known along the way.
The school community surprised McCarron with a grand celebration on Jan. 27 during Catholic Schools Week. "It was the best celebration I've ever had in my life," McCarron said. "It reflected the heart and soul of this community."
The day began and ended with prayer. including a prayer written by the school's campus minister, Catherine Sullivan, a 2007 NDP graduate.
"Sister Patricia always tells us prayer is the greatest gift we can give each other," she said. Sullivan said she remembers the concern her headmistress had for her as she made her college decision — and now she sees how McCarron cares for her faculty. "She shows us how to care for the whole person," Sullivan said.
McCarron's family was on hand for the luncheon and Mass celebrated by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori. Fellow School Sisters were there to renew their vows and sing the "Magnificat," a hymn members of the order traditionally sing at such celebrations. Even Sister Betty Orr, SSND, her principal at St. Pius X, was there.
There were messages of love and good wishes from all the students and gifts. Hannah Imhoff a junior, created a painting presented to McCarron during the festivities. Her watercolor of a candle represented the nun's years in religious life, her work in the school and included the school year themes set during McCarron's tenure in a watercolor
"I was very honored to represent the school in that way," McCarron said.
A showcase in the school's lobby is filled with photos of McCarron as a toddler in the snow, playing basketball, as a young teacher and as a new headmistress walking through the traditional archway.
The celebrations continue with the school's already-sold-out gala, Saddles and Silver, on March 14 and the School Sisters' Jubilarian celebration in May.
McCarron expressed her gratitude for all the good wishes and hard work that have gone into these celebrations. "There are no words to articulate my appreciation and gratitude for that," she said. "The thoughtfulness is unparalleled."
The highlight of her last 10 years at Notre Dame Prep?
"The girls," she said without skipping a beat. She called them "fabulous young women that you see grow and become empowered to change the world."
"They are the highlight every single day," McCarron said.
Then McCarron stops herself and adds more highlights: the teachers and the staff, the board of trustees, parents.
"That's a winning combination," McCarron said. "My job's easy."