ELMIRA — If love for Catholic education can be measured in years of service, then the affection held by Ann O’Connor, Maureen Smith and Sue Wallace is almost off the charts.
This trio has a collective experience of nearly one century in Catholic teaching, and since the 1980s has taught at Holy Family Primary School. All three teachers retired in June 2008 from the prekindergarten-through-grade-3 facility, which is located on the campus of St. Mary Southside Church.
O’Connor, a native of England, recalled that her journey in Catholic education started in low-key fashion some 40 years ago, when the former Our Lady of Lourdes School lost its kindergarten teacher just as the school year was getting under way.
"They asked if I could start the next day and fill in for a couple of weeks," she recalled, adding that once this began, nobody brought up the supposedly temporary nature of her assignment: "After a while, I picked up that I might be staying."
She stayed, all right, putting in 18 years at Our Lady of Lourdes. And yet, an even longer tenure awaited her: A 1986 consolidation of local Catholic schools brought her to Holy Family Primary, where she would serve the next 22 years. Her entire tenure in Elmira has been spent as a kindergarten teacher.
"Kindergarten, you don’t ever get tired of it," she remarked. "It’s such a lovely age. Children are very accepting."
However, she observed that staying in one place for so long had her trying to figure out what to do with "40 years of stuff in my room."
Smith and Wallace, as well, knew a good thing when they had it and have remained first-grade teachers over the years at Holy Family Primary.
Smith actually taught Catholic school for two years while she was still attending Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. She then taught three years of public school in Horseheads before taking some 20 years off to raise her family of seven children. She picked up teaching again in 1983 as college expenses began to loom for her kids. She taught at the former St. Casimir School for three years, and then came to Holy Family Primary in 1986 after St. Casimir closed.
Smith said she has appreciated having the freedom to inject the Catholic faith into all parts of the school day.
"I like bringing God up in every subject — how does God figure into it? I think that’s why God sent me here," she said.
Wallace, meanwhile, has logged 38 years of teaching overall. After 10 years in public schools in Waverly, she taught for eight years at St. James School — also located in the Tioga County village — until it closed in 1988. Since then she has commuted from Waverly to Holy Family Primary, teaching third grade her first year there and then locking in to first grade for the final 19 years.
"I think I’m really suited for first grade," Wallace said, adding that keeping the atmosphere light has been her way of bringing out the best in her students: "You have to make it fun."
O’Connor, Smith and Wallace all expressed a desire to substitute or volunteer in the future at their beloved school. They also stated that enjoyment of their Holy Family jobs outweighed the possibility of making more money in public schools.
"I never, ever thought of changing," O’Connor said.
"There are so many things. This place has an atmosphere you won’t find anyplace else," Smith said.
"All of us loved it. You hear a lot about the pay, but none of us cared," Wallace said. "At Catholic schools, we really are like one big family."
Holy Family Primary School teachers Sue Wallace (from left), Ann O’Connor and Maureen Smith retired at the end of the 2007-08 school year. (Photo by Rick Bacmanski)