When Dan McBride of Rochester says he has known Sister of St. Joseph Seraphine Herbst for most of his life, he’s not exaggerating.
She was his kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart School in Rochester before she began a 50-year teaching and administrative career at School of the Holy Childhood, where McBride has volunteered for more than two decades. At the end of this school year, his former teacher will retire as executive director of the school, which serves children and adults with special needs.
There will be a celebration in honor of Sister Herbst on Sept. 12 at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center — or, as she puts it, a celebration of the school’s children and adults.
School of the Holy Childhood has grown exponentially since 1946 when the first two classes of “slow learners” began learning vocational skills and traditional academics. At the time, public schools did not have to accept students with developmental disabilities or learning disabilities, Sister Herbst noted.
“There weren’t any other schools like ours,” she said.
The school has been located on Plymouth Avenue and on Andrews Street in Rochester and on Buffalo Road in Gates before moving in 1984 to a former Henrietta elementary school on Groton Parkway, where 114 students and 87 adults are served.
“The growth of our school has been due to our wonderful staff and all our parents and friends at the school,” Sister Herbst said.
However, Kelly Hallenbeck, public-relations coordinator for the school, points out Sister Herbst’s many contributions: She started the school’s Jimmy W. Wilmot Adult Day Training Program, which provides vocational training and employment in the Special Touch Bakery, Partners with Industry program and the Woodworking Shop; the school’s Helen H. Heller Health Clinic, which is designed to address the medical, therapeutic, and psychological needs of students and adults at the school; and the school’s sports and recreation programs, which include a wheelchair-accessible pool.
The school has become renowned for all of these programs. For example, in 1994 Conde Nast Traveler magazine dubbed the school’s pies the best in America. Fifty area restaurants and senior living centers serve pies made daily at the bakery. Its furniture and crafts also are sell-outs during annual fundraising sales.
Proceeds go back into the program to provide employment for adults and educational opportunities for students with special needs, Hallenbeck said.
Today, students up to age 21 from 32 area school districts learn traditional academics according to state standards, as well as ceramics, sewing, weaving, woodworking and cooking. Students also are taught life skills: how to chose a home that’s on a bus line and in walking distance of stores, how to write checks, how to budget, and how to use computers to search for jobs, write a resume and send e-mails.
“I’m most proud of all the children and adults, and all they’ve accomplished and all they’ve learned to do on their own,” Sister Herbst said.
Some of the school’s students chose to work for the school after graduation. Mary McWilliams of Rochester is one such former student. She now is an adult employee who works with the school’s Partners with Industry program, which completes contract jobs for private companies.
“I like the school,” said McWilliams, a parishioner of St. Ambrose Church in Rochester. “People teach me a lot, and I know my skills pretty well, too. I always get along with the bosses in the workshop.”
Hallenbeck noted that many of the adults and students at the school are very proud of their abilities.
“There are a lot of things in their lives that they are told they can’t do,” she said.
Supporters of the school say Sister Herbst has been instrumental in helping adults and children discover their abilities.
“She’s got a special way about her, especially in working with the kids at the school,” agreed Peter Nicchita of Irondequoit, grand commander of the International Order of the Alhambra Caravan Musa No. 25, a Rochester-area Catholic men’s organization that hosts an annual pizza party and celebrates a Mass at the school. During those events, Sister Herbst always has displayed her great love for the children at the school, he said.
“When she leaves, it’s going to be a big void in the school,” Nicchita remarked.
A search committee has been formed to find her replacement, according to school officials. Sister Herbst, who just celebrated her 60th jubilee and who received the 2007 Greater Rochester Executive of the Year Award from the Rochester Business Journal and the United Way of Greater Rochester, said she hopes to return to the school as a volunteer, in addition to other volunteer work with children and infants.
She said she misses working with young children as she did as a kindergarten teacher at Rochester’s Sacred Heart and St. Monica schools and at St. Mary School in Elmira.
“I left part of my heart there (in the classroom),” Sister Herbst said. “I must say, I loved my little people.”
The feeling is mutual, said McBride, who retired as captain of the Rochester Fire Department in 2008. Each year the department hosts a Christmas party, during which McBride tells how Sister Herbst took the time and energy years ago to make hundreds of wings for her kindergarten students in celebration of the Feast of the Holy Angels.
“Sister Seraphine has spent her life dispatching angels,” McBride said. “She put wings on us and sent us out in the world.”
Some, like McBride, continue to find their way back to her.