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Part 2

Sister's Act

The compassion, hard work and leadership Sister Charlotte inspires daily in both her teachers and students are testament to her value. "Not only does she know all our names," says Saint Gertrude senior Sarah Ellington, "but she knows how each one of us is doing in our classes."

"I've never forgotten my adolescence. There are some struggles and you keep a lot inside," says Sister Charlotte. "I took what could have been a painful experience and turned it into activity," she says. She taught herself to sew and made all her own clothes; she joined the cheerleading squad; and she managed the school's basketball team.

And now, at an age when most people look forward to retirement, Sister Charlotte's energy is still in full swing. She's learning a new subject from the school's development director. Some would call it marketing — Sister Charlotte calls it a necessary labor of love. She's ready to make use of whatever bells and whistles are necessary to keep the school progressive — and competitive with other more expensive private schools. And that means launching a capital campaign as early as next year.

"We're in the feasibility stage," says Sarah Fortune, the school's development director. The school — whose attendance has increased steadily from 166 students in 1991 to 297 students in 1999 — is in dire need of new space and updated facilities. Saint Gertrude hasn't had a building upgrade since the "new" wing was added in 1972. "No, our facilities are not great," confirms Sister Charlotte. "No teams will play us," she says, because the school's gym has no place for spectators and doesn't have the preferred floor.

In addition to scouting out facility suggestions — the school's city location leaves little room for expansion — Sister Charlotte has had to retire some of the day-to-day duties she loves most. This year she's had to eliminate what she calls her cafeteria duty — her three-time-a-week lunches she spent with students — in order to spend more time in the office and on fund-raising. But even as she upgrades her role of principal to include that of ambassador — at fund-raisers, board meetings, alumnae events and benefit breakfasts — she's convinced she's the one who can extract the resources she feels the school needs. And she promises she'll do it all within the eyeshot of her students. "It's important to be visible. You can bet I'll still make my connection with the girls every day."

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasIn the convent's small prayer room, Sister Charlotte and Sister Gertrude together recite Benedictine prayers every morning and evening. The principal's office at Saint Gertrude High School shrinks in her presence as Sister Charlotte flits like a firefly from one spot to the next. She stoops to rifle through papers on her desk, certain she'll uncover what she's looking for. "Ah ha!" she exclaims pulling a purple handout from a stack. She whisks it out at arm's length like a pop quiz. This sheet describes briefly the ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia: to serve the community, educate by example, and teach the message of the Gospels through Catholic tradition. With 40 years of experience, that's something Sister Charlotte can't do in just one day. Thirsty from a long, late summer afternoon, she sips a Diet Coke and praises the chill of the school's newest amenity. "People always ask me about the air-conditioning, and it's all air-conditioned, but I think the technology we've acquired is more important." Reluctantly, she eyes the little wicker couch across from her desk, as if she can't sit until everything's done. After a moment she gives in, knowing that times like these — free from school bells, cluttered hallways and uniform checks — are numbered.

Around her neck Sister Charlotte wears a miraculous medal of the Blessed Mother, because, she says, she was chosen. It's something she wants the young women at Saint Gertrude to understand. "Women don't often think of themselves as chosen," she says.

Still, feeling chosen and learning about leadership didn't always come easy for Sister Charlotte. And she's frustrated when parents coddle their daughters and expect life to be breezy. "Let me tell you my story as a ninth-grader," she begins. Awkward and excited, Sister Charlotte tried out for the basketball team her freshman year at Saint Gertrude. Not only did she not make the team, she was asked to be the manager for four years. "I didn't expect to make it, but I also didn't think I was so bad that I would be asked to be manager for all four years of high school." But because she had been chosen, she stuck it out and tried harder. She managed the team that first year, and her sophomore year she made the junior varsity team. And her junior year she made the varsity team. She also continued to manage the team each year. "I carried the balls, I kept score, I did whatever needed to be done," she says excitedly. "These days parents and their kids need to be patient like that and learn, by sticking it out. Sometimes you have to sit on the bench."

[image-2]Photo by Stephen Salpukas"When they asked me to take this job I thought, 'Who me? Why me?'" Sister Charlotte recalls. "But it's a job I love, and sometimes, the rewards are overwhelming." Sister Charlotte herself has recently learned a lesson in patience and expectations. Recent travels of the school's Blessed Mother statue have not only made the news, they've become as emblematic of the school's traditional quirkiness as its reverence. Resting in the rose garden above neatly trimmed boxwoods, the statue idled for years until it was stolen in June of 1995. Sister Charlotte called the police and spread the word among neighbors, but after a few weeks, Sister Charlotte lost hope for its return. Then, surprisingly, it turned up. The statue was returned to the same spot in the garden. That caper made the news, but few people realize it wasn't the only heist. The statue was actually stolen again, but Sister Charlotte, who couldn't bear the thought of cementing the Blessed Mother's feet to the pedestal, was too embarrassed to tell anyone. A few days later the statue returned again, and this time, Sister Charlotte saw to it she wouldn't be taken again. The Spanish-style mission part of the old school has a pediment high above the holly bushes and Japanese maples in the rose garden. With the help of her gardener and a rented cherry picker, the 4-foot statue of the Blessed Mother was hoisted up into the sky and wedged in the nook for safe keeping. "Now that she's famous," says Sister Charlotte, pleased, "she's been elevated to a new position."

Now that school's in, Sister Charlotte's position is heightened, too. She swoops in next to a girl opening her locker in senior hall, tugs her Ally McBeal-length plaid skirt and turns smiling. "She'll tuck your shirt in for you, too. She's always right there to clean you up," laughs senior Alicia Hogue. In addition to being principal, Sister Charlotte is a gum catcher, hall monitor and hem watcher. The hats she wears daily are as numerous as a jester's tricks. "I hope they think of me as a loving challenger," she says. "I'm their parent away from home. I always tell them, 'I'm really a nice person, I'm just doing my job.'" And it's a job that's never done.

"There's an image of principal that every person has," says Sister Charlotte. "But most of what I do in my office is not fussing with people. I'm really not a principal, I took it on as a challenge. I'm a Benedictine sister first and that's what molds me. I just happen to be a principal at this point in my life." Still, she speaks like a young woman who has just realized her potential, knows that she is chosen, and is ready to prove that she is a leader. And whether she retires next year, or well into the next millennium, Sister Charlotte will continue to make this connection. "This is all part of me working through my own adolescence."

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