Act of faith brings a struggling family a Christmas surprise
R.W. Dellinger Dec. 21, 2018
When Angelus News heard about a little parochial school in El Sereno that had taken in three students being raised mostly by their grandmother and uncle, it wasn’t long before a staff writer and photographer were dispatched to All Saints School, a cream stucco building a half-dozen blocks off busy Huntington Drive.
The uncle, who worked a graveyard shift, had already put their older sister in All Saints. Andrea, 11, transferred in from a local public school halfway through the school year last year. But he couldn’t come up with tuition for the others, who stayed in public school.
That didn’t matter to All Saints’ principal, Maria Palermo, when she found out the younger siblings wanted to be with their big sister. So Angelique, 9, Aaron, 8, and Alysen, 6, also transferred in this fall — bringing the enrollment all the way up to 54 students.
“I don’t want people to think that finance is a reason not to come here,” said Palermo, who is in her 19th year as principal. “We always make do. It’s more important if they want to come here to get a Catholic education. So when I found out they wanted to be with their sister, it was like: ‘Why not?’
“Our mission is to produce scholarly minds and saintly hearts. And we take that seriously. But by the same token, we’re not to be taken advantage of.”
But that wasn’t the case with the uncle, who said it was his dream to have them all going to Catholic school. “ ‘Oh, that would be much easier and so better for me and their grandmother,’ ” the principal recalled him saying. “ ‘And so much better for the children, too.’ ”
‘You learn more here’
Andrea was pointing out how her 9-year-old sister, Angelique, was a grade behind her but also taller. Aaron was trying to make their baby sister, Alysen, laugh, or at least smile. The children, oldest to youngest wearing blue zip-up All Saints’ sweatshirts, were sitting behind blond-topped desks in the vacant classroom. All but Aaron had their fingers knitted together in front of them.
“At first it was hard, because I didn’t really know what they were learning here,” Andrea admitted about coming to All Saints midway through last year. “Because at my old public school they didn’t really teach me what they learn here. I had a lot more work to do.”
“And now fifth grade is a bit more challenging than fourth,” she went on. “Because my teacher said as we go along it will get more harder. But I like that because it makes you smarter. And I like that we have sixth-graders in class, too. You can make friends with them.
“At my old school, I was really picked on and bullied, and you didn’t learn a lot,” she explained. “So my uncle wanted me to get a better education.”
Aaron said he’s also been picked on at this old school, but had already made friends at All Saints.
“The teachers are better,” he said. “I’m with first and second grade. But there’s only 10. And I like it being smaller because the teacher can help you more.”
Alysen still had her hands folded together. “You learn more here,” she almost whispered. “I’ve learned my pluses [numbers] and the alphabet and the sounds of words.”
“She knows up to 100,” Aaron butted in. “I know up to 200.”
Now she was blushing, saying how she liked being in the same class as her older brother.
“Because sometimes he must help me,” she said.
“I think the transition was not too harsh, because they were welcomed,” said their principal, right after the group interview. “I think what might have been a little challenging was the workload, because they really have to produce something. In public school if you do your work, you’re fine; if you don’t do it, you’re fine, too. Here you can’t really get away with that. There’s no leeway. Because the teachers make their students do their work. There’s no shortchanging.
“One of them had a tough time adjusting to the workload. And her teacher said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to let her go. I’m going to tell her I’m doing this because I love you.’ So there’s positive affirmation. But you have to do your work. That’s what’s expected of you.”
With Andrea, it was her fourth-grade teacher who worked with her, stressing how she was in a safe place. She could be herself and didn’t have to pretend she was someone meaner and tougher. And the turnaround was a kinder, outgoing student who just blossomed in her new school environment.
Many others have, too, at All Saints.
“I don’t know their family situation 100 percent, but I know when they’re here, they’re being loved, and they’re being taught that Jesus loves them,” said Palermo. “That no matter what, they’re special. And that’s something they have to feel. Because if they don’t and they go through life with ‘I just have to get this grade, do this work,’ then that’s not a real purpose.”
After a moment, the principal added, “This is a place where whatever goes wrong at home — yes, it can be abhorrent — but here we’re here to learn and become better people and to always know that Jesus loves you. And we love you and want you to do better. That’s what we’re all about.”
A Christmas script
After speaking to Palermo and the children, Angelus News figured it had its Christmas story: A small parochial school barely struggling to get by takes in four students being brought up by their grandmother and uncle.
They can’t afford to pay tuition, but really value a Catholic education. A compassionate principal takes them in, rents a spare classroom for filming for $1,000, and prayers to Padre Pio to somehow come up with the shortfall.
But the story wasn’t finished yet.
After our reporter and photographer were gone and school was out at 3 p.m., Palermo spotted an elderly couple she had never seen before in the schoolyard. And it went like a Christmas movie script from there.
“Can I help you?”
“We’d like to see the principal.”
“Oh, I’m the principal.”
“Can we set up a time to meet with you?”
“We can do that right now.”
Back in the school secretary’s office, the couple from Holy Family Church in South Pasadena said they wanted to sponsor a family but didn’t have any idea which family. Palermo mentioned how Angelus News, the archdiocese’s weekly magazine, had been out earlier today working on an article about four students being raised by their grandmother and uncle who couldn’t afford to pay tuition.
The couple said they’d like to support those kids, asking how much would their tuition was. The principal quickly calculated the total cost at $10,000, but explained she’d already raised $1,000 by renting a classroom to a film crew.
So she could hardly believe it when the couple said that would be fine.
When Palermo talked to Angelus News the next day, she remarked with some glee, “See, didn’t I say Padre Pio comes through every time? It was a miracle, but, you know, we have miracles happen all the time at All Saints.”
“Padre Pio! Padre Pio!”
As pastor of All Saints Church in El Sereno, Father Mario Pisano worked with Maria Palermo for seven years until he retired last year, becoming associate pastor. It didn’t really surprise the Minim religious order priest when she told him about the $9,000 donation to support four needy students.
“She’s obviously a fantastic lady,” he told Angelus News. “I don’t know how she does what she does at All Saints with the few students that we have in the school. But she is so active. You find her cleaning the bathrooms because we don’t have a janitor during the daytime. She finds somebody always to help out. They come and see and become benefactors. And she’s always outside talking to the students. Always.”
And he knows well about her deep faith and reliance on prayer. Especially to one saint.
“She always says, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry, Father. Father Pio is going to take care of us. Father Pio is going to provide,’” said Pisano. “ ‘Don’t worry, Father. Don’t worry.’ Padre Pio! Padre Pio!’ To me when I was pastor, she was a blessing.”
Licette Gonzalez first became involved with All Saints School as a parent. Alyssa is now in third-fourth grade, while Emily attends kindergarten. She’s taught T (Transitional) kindergarten, second and third grade, and this is her second year with third- and fourth-graders.
So, she’s seen both sides of being a teacher and a parent and wanting to keep the school open. She’s also witnessed up close how hard the principal works to accomplish that.
“As a teacher, I feel we’re closer,” she said. “I feel like almost we’re going to war together. Because we’re such a small school with a small staff, we don’t have the luxuries of doing the extras because we’re spread thin. Sometimes we don’t have a break. And where Maria needs help, we step in; and where we need help, Maria steps in.”
But the principal has touched Gonzalez in another way.
“As a friend, she has made me more faith-filled,” she confided. “I’m a product of the Catholic school system, and in May will be getting my master’s from Mount St. Mary’s. But since I’ve met Maria, she’s really opened my mind as far as my faith and, like, power prayer. She prays about everything, and that’s what I love about her. If something is wrong at school or with any of our families, she just goes into prayer mode.
“And, of course, Padre Pio is her favorite. When it looks like we have our backs against the wall and this is it, Maria pulls out a miracle. It’s her faith, and she projects that onto us. Every faculty meeting must have something to do with religion or faith. Not just as a teacher, but our own personal faith. Because if we don’t have a strong faith, we can’t teach.”
As a parent, Jennifer Quintero has known Palermo since her own daughter, Ruby, started going to All Saints School. And this year, her son Dean, 4, is the only member of the pre-K class. Her husband and younger twin sisters attended the school.
So, she knew about the closeness and family atmosphere of the El Sereno parochial school. And she especially liked its “smallness.” But she couldn’t imagine how stressful it must be to keep the little school up and running.
“Maria’s doing an awfully good job managing the school, leading us,” she said. “It’s a family here, and the faith is strong. My kids talk about what they’ve learned about Jesus. So it gives them direction to believe as young kids.
“It counts for a lot that she’s stayed here so long when she could be making a lot more money in public or even a well-off Catholic school. But she’s happy what she’s doing. It’s a work of her heart.”
About the four students and Holy Family couple who started Angelus News on this evolving piece, Quintero has no doubts. “That is a miracle,” she said with a growing grin. “It’s a real Christmas story.”
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