By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T
VILLANOVA – Barbara spanirgilio didn’t set out to be a teacher. After attending Our Lady of Angels School in Philadelphia and the commercial program at West Catholic Girls High School in 1960, she went to work in an office, just as she intended.
It only took six months for her to discover office work isn’t for everyone: She found it downright boring.
Looking for more fulfilling work, spanirgilio considered becoming a teacher. A priest who was a friend of her family put her in touch with Msgr. (now retired Archbishop of New Orleans) Francis Schulte at the Archdiocesan Schools Office, and through him, she obtained a teaching position at Most Blessed Sacrament School.
Back then, she explained, the Catholic schools had a program where girls could come straight out of high school to teach while earning their certification and degree through evening, Saturday and summer classes.
She started teaching Jan. 17, 1961, and her first day was a trip – literally.
As spanirgilio was rushing to meet the 69 third-grade girls who would be her charges for the next semester, she fell down the stairs.
At first, “it was very overwhelming,” she remembers, “but the nuns (Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) were really good mentors.”
It also helped that she quickly realized teaching was the only thing she wanted to do. But MBS was just a temporary position; the following year she was hired at St. Callistus School, where she spent 35 enjoyable years working with the Sisters of St. Joseph. She taught third, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades and was assistant principal until St. Callistus closed in 1996.
Finding another school at a time when so many Catholic schools were closing wasn’t easy, and it was down to the wire in August, when spanirgilio was hired by Immaculate Heart of Mary School in the Andorra section of the city, where she has taught for 15 years. She credits prayer, especially a novena at the National Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Germantown, with helping her find a new school.
“I have great devotion to the Blessed Mother, and it happened the day after the novena,” said spanirgilio, who doesn’t believe it was a coincidence the new school was under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin.
A teacher of religion and English, religion is easily her favorite subject. Growing up in West Philadelphia, reciting the rosary was a family custom as was daily Mass during October and May.
Even now, while she has lived in St. Thomas of Villanova Parish in Villanova for 45 years, on school days she rises early for the 6:30 a.m. Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
Teaching religion is more challenging today because regular Mass attendance is not the rule with many families.
“I tell the children, ‘God is my best friend,'” she said. Two years ago the students used that quote when they dedicated the school yearbook to her. “Sometimes you don’t realize the impact you have,” said spanirgilio, who will retire at the end of the school year.
She will miss the children most, because although she never married and had children of her own, they are her great love, next to God.
“I don’t know what God has in store for me, but I’m sure whatever it is, it will be good,” she said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.