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By Jim Ignasher
Perhaps you’ve driven past St. Philip Church in Greenville recently and noticed something’s different, such as the twelve-foot-tall statue of an angel standing between St. Philip School and the church. Although the angel is a recent addition, its reason for its being there can be traced to the school’s origin in 1960.
By the mid-1950s St. Philip parish had grown to the point where parishioners felt a parochial school for the elementary and middle school grades was warranted, and funds were allotted for its construction. Monsignor Joseph P. McNamara, then pastor of St. Philip Church, oversaw the construction of both the new school, and an adjacent convent building that would serve as a dormitory for the nuns who would serve as teachers and administrators.
The new school opened in September of 1960 with a staff of only four nuns, each belonging to the Religious Sisters of Mercy at Mount St. Rita’s Convent in Cumberland. When they first arrived, the convent at St. Philip’s had yet to be completed, so they were temporarily housed at the St. Aloysius Home, then located on Austin Avenue.
And the school had yet to be fully stocked with necessary items such as books and desks, forcing students to improvise for the first few weeks. Yet despite the initial set backs, the school proved to be popular among the parishioners, and by 1964 enrollment had reached capacity necessitating waiting lists. By the later 1960s, the teaching staff had grown to eight, (One teacher for each grade.), with class size routinely hovering around fifty students. Despite the large classes, the school became known for its academic excellence.
Over the ensuing years thirty-nine Religious Sisters of Mercy served at St. Philip School, five of them as principals, which brings us to the statue of the angel. In 2016 it was announced that some demolition work would take place at the Mount St. Rita Convent, and the statue of the angel would need to be relocated in order to be saved. To make a long story short, the statue was brought to St. Philip Church to create a Mercy Memorial Garden as a way to honor and remember the nuns from the convent who served at St. Philip School.
In August of this year the statue was placed atop a cement slab outside the school, and given a dazzling white protective coating of paint. Then a memorial walkway was installed, with inscribed bricks bearing the names of the thirty-nine sisters from Mount St. Rita Convent who taught at the school; five ivory colored bricks for those who served as principal, the rest done in red. Finally, landscaping was added.
On September 13, a dedication ceremony was held that was led by Reverend Francis C. Santilli, the present pastor of St. Philip Parish, and assistant pastor, Father Ryan Simas, during which the statue was blessed, and named the “Angel of Peace” in reference to the Angel of Portugal who appeared before three peasant children of Fatima in 1916 asking them to pray. The following year the three children would experience numerous visions of the Virgin Mary that have become world famous.
In addition to dedicating the statue, a large room in the former convent, now used for administration purposes, was dedicated as “Mercy Hall”, in honor of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, and another room in the school was named “Peters Place”, in honor of Sister Mary Assunta Peters, R.S.M, the first principal of St. Philip School.
The ceremony was well attended by an estimated 300 people, with music provided by the St. Philip School youth choir.
Special honored guests included eight former nuns who served at St. Philip School. When it was over, they were given a special tour of the renovated convent, and invited to dinner at the St. Philip Parish Festival taking place behind the church.