Asked why she has stayed principal of Immaculate Conception School just outside the north edge of the gritty, immigrant-first-stop Pico-Union district, Mary Ann Murphy doesn’t hesitate.“I love being with kids. I love this community. I have always been committed to working in the Hispanic community. I love being able to speak the language. But those are kind of minor reasons,” admits the 59-year-old woman, who has directed the parochial school for 26 years. She’s sitting on a short navy blue couch in her office, which features a life-sized standing robot tightly wrapped in aluminum foil with bottle-cap eyes (a recent class project). A couple of colorful John Swanson paintings hang on the wall. Murphy looks relaxed, sitting back with her legs crossed, wearing a light blue blouse over darker pants. She has short brown hair and is wearing rimless glasses and diminutive gold round earrings. When probed about why she didn’t take her considerable administrative skills to a public school where she could make lots more money, her eyebrows arch and she looks like she wants to shake her head.“Nothing about public school is attractive to me, and I don’t say that in criticism of the public school system,” she says. “I like the smallness of a Catholic school. I like the spirituality of a Catholic school. I like being able to pray with the kids in the morning and stop and just say, ‘What we just heard in the Scripture is telling us that we need to do this or that. That’s a great gift. “I like the way the community comes together to support somebody in a time of need. We all would be making a greater salary working in public schools. That’s not why I’m doing this. Even in the hard days — we’re on a 200-day academic calendar, and about this point of the year it feels a little long — there’s always something beautiful about every day here, whether it’s an interaction with a kid or having former students come back to tell us how good they’re doing.”The principal mentions two female former students she hasn’t seen in eight years who stopped by recently. Both graduated from college, with one now working on a Ph.D. at Ivy League Brown University. They couldn’t stop talking about the lifelong friendships they formed at Immaculate Conception.Then she goes on about a boy named Steven coming by just last week who was about to graduate from Cathedral High School in Elysian Park. Later on this summer, he’s headed to The Oregon Institute of Technology with combined scholarships to study computer engineering. “Before he left here he said, ‘I’m so glad I came to this school for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. It was hard. But it changed my life and saved my life.’ And he was not starting out on a really good path,” recalls Murphy. “So having former students come back and having two full-time teachers who went here is very gratifying. Being able to kind of keep tabs on where these people are is really good. And sometimes I joke with the junior high teachers, you know, when kids might be giving us a little bit of grief, and say, ‘Why do we have to wait until they’re in high school to reap the benefits of what we’re doing?’”First secular jobThe third-generation Californian grew up in the Bay Area and went to Catholic school herself from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and graduated from Holy Name College in Oakland. For 15 years, she was a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, teaching for 11 of those years at All Souls School in Alhambra, St. Gerard Majella in Los Angeles, St. Anne in Santa Monica and St. Stephen Martyr in Monterey Park. After leaving the religious community in June of 1987, her first secular job was as principal of Immaculate Conception. And on her very first day that August at the little parochial school, the U.S. Secret Service showed up to start the credentialing process for Pope John Paul II’s upcoming visit to L.A. and Immaculate Conception, which was conveniently across the street from the archdiocese’s then-chancery office. While she was being interviewed, a rat ran across the floor of her office. Besides preparing for the pontiff’s upcoming visit that September 16, the new principal had to quickly adjust to a new school and new locale. There was also the matter of a crucial accreditation re-visit in the spring, with a number of school improvements that had to be made. All this, while the former sister was still adjusting to living a secular life. “So there was a big agenda coming up,” she says with only the hint of a smile. “But I don’t recall feeling stressed, not at all. It was really exciting. And I felt coming in I was really blessed with very solid training in education. I mean, that was the charism of my religious community. And I had learned from four very different principals; so I was really able to take pieces from everybody.” Moving forwardFast forward a quarter century, and Murphy clicks off the things that have made, and still make, her tenure at Immaculate Conception so rewarding. “There’s been a lot of change,” she says. “I think the school has moved forward in terms of rigor. The level of preparation of the teachers is something I’m extremely proud of. And having former students bring their children back to be educated at Immaculate Conception is always gratifying.”Other accomplishments — not the principal’s choice of words — include the Shea Foundation funding the building of a 5,000-square-foot addition, which allowed the school to open a pre-K (Kindergarten) five summers ago. She says becoming part of the Specialty Family Foundation’s Consortium of Schools has been a “huge blessing.”And then there’s the library, up and running two years now. Murphy distinctly remembers a student starting to cry when she learned the school would finally have its own library. Last year, to honor her 25 years as principal, the school surprised her by naming it after her with a whole school celebration.“It’s always moving forward,” she muses.Ongoing challengesOf course, there have been challenges, with the main one always being money. Tuition only accounts for 40 percent of the school’s income, while salaries and benefits make up 80 percent of expenses. The principal says if it wasn’t for Together in Mission (the annual archdiocesan appeal to assist parishes and schools serving low-income populations), the Catholic Education Foundation and many other organizations and individuals that support her school, “we would be in dire straits.”Enrollment is also an ongoing challenge, according to the principal. “We’re fairly healthy,” she reports, with currently 270 students, up from 222 five years ago. “I think another challenge is when kids are affected by circumstances beyond their control,” explains Murphy. “Whether it’s a family financial crisis or parent illness, and we’ve seen some really serious parent illnesses here. “We’ve also had families impacted by the whole immigration issue. It’s heartbreaking when you see a family broken apart or children waiting for that legal status so that they can go to college and get a decent job. That has such a huge impact on kids emotionally and affects their learning. And it forces them to lose a part of their childhood.”But the joys of her job have more than matched the challenges. And she goes back to Steven, the Cathedral High School senior who’s headed off to college this summer in Oregon to be a computer engineer. Yesterday morning, in fact, his mother showed up at Immaculate Conception, seeking out the principal. Tears were streaming down her face as she held the invitation to his graduation ceremony in her hand.“This is your work,” the parent told Murphy. “This is the work of the sixth grade teacher when my son came to school here. He would not be where he is today if it wasn’t for your belief in him.”To which Murphy replied, “But we did this as a team. And you and his dad didn’t just drop him off here and expect us to do the rest.” After considering this for a moment, Mary Ann Murphy says, “You know, that is just such a strong reminder of why we do what we do every day.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0607/olaprincipal/{/gallery}