St. Mary School and Principal Christa Hanson prepare for 135th
Gilroy – When Christa Hanson arrived at St. Mary School there was some serious work to do. It was run-down, the curriculum outdated and enrollment at an all-time low of 168.
But 16 years later, under the helpful hand of the hardworking and dedicated former nun, enrollment has jumped to 305, the First Street facility stands proud and the curriculum is challenging and 21st century.
The school has a new computer lab, refurbished gym and teachers now participate in a variety of workshops and in-service programs. As they inch closer to capacity and plan for the construction of a new science wing, staffers are also prepping to celebrate the school’s 135th anniversary.
And the school prides itself on providing a nurturing environment and maintaining a strong relationship with the community and alumni.
“There’s a definite connection,” said Sara Humphrey, a 1995 St. Mary graduate. “You’re just able to form a real strong bond with everybody that’s in your class.”
Hanson has become a community staple. The principal, whom co-workers admire for having a keen sense of humor, has weathered quite a few changes and trekked down some interesting paths in her 57 years.
One year after high school graduation, Hanson knew what she wanted to do with her future. While her classmates headed off to college, marriages or the workforce, the Iowa native packed up her belongings, trading her Midwestern home for a Mountain View convent.
“I felt a call to religious life,” she said.
Hanson grew up in a religious Catholic household, but none of her close relatives were clergy members. The middle child became interested in the sisterhood her senior year of high school when she read about a missionary group that worked in South Africa.
Hanson never followed a missionary group to a Third World locale, but she did spend one summer in South Africa as a secretary for the general chapter of the Dominican Sisters. She was ordained as a nun in Mountain View, at the Dominican Sister-run convent.
During her stay at the convent she prepared meals for the more than 120 seniors who lived in the home near the convent. It takes between seven and nine years before an aspiring nun makes her final profession and is ordained.
Staying in line with the Dominican Sisters’ primary focus on education and nursing, the longtime educator began teaching seventh grade at St. Justin Catholic School in Santa Clara. After teaching for five years and then serving as principal for three at St. Justin, Hanson made a serious leap.
Eighteen years of her life had been spent in a nun’s habit. She was 37 years old, had no credit or savings and had spent all her adulthood thus far living in convents. Still, in 1986 Hanson resolved to leave the sisterhood.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” she said. “I think some people were sad, some confused.”
Unlike some priests and nuns who leave the clergy to marry, that wasn’t the driving force behind Hanson’s decision. She was ready to close that chapter of her life and move onto something new.
“I just felt like I needed to grow,” the former educator said, choosing not to elaborate.
The Santa Clara University graduate packed up and moved to the Los Angeles area to work at a residential treatment center for abused girls. The center, which is run by the Daughters of Charity, treats girls between the ages of three and 18.
There were rewarding experiences at the center, when girls managed to become healthy, happy individuals, despite the abuse. But counseling children who had suffered such horrific situations was stressful and sometimes depressing. Also, Hanson wasn’t a big fan of Southern California.
After four years at the center she applied and landed the position at St. Mary School.
These days Hanson’s life basically mirrors the one she lived as a nun. She never married, nor had children, still works in education and is involved with the church and the community. Still, there is a part of her that misses the past.
“It has it’s place, there’s a beauty to it that I miss,” she said.
Vicki Brinkman, director of development and Hanson’s assistant since she began her tenure at St. Mary, said the principal is “an outstanding leader at this school.”
Brinkman credits the jump in enrollment to Hanson’s ability to rally the community. The school held a work day, wherein locals, school staffers, parents and St. Mary alumni, showed up to help refurbish the school, a feat that would have been difficult to accomplish given the cost.
“It increased their pride in the school and helped cut the cost,” she said.
Referring to Hanson as St. Mary’s “good will ambassador,” Brinkman said the principal understands the importance of maintaining a solid connection with Gilroy and with the school’s alma mater.
That sense of community and home was something Humphrey strongly missed when she enrolled at Gilroy High School. The 25-year-old St. Mary alumna had attended a parochial school since kindergarten but decided to give the public institution a try.
“It was a major culture shock,” she said. “It wasn’t the small hometown feel that the Catholic schools had always offered.”
After two years at GHS, Humphrey transferred to Notre Dame High School in Salinas. The Gilroy resident said she often sees former classmates around town and recently one of her former teachers greeted her with a hug at the market.
Once again she gave public schools a chance and enrolled her daughter at a local elementary school but wasn’t satisfied. Although she didn’t have an issue with the education or the teachers, Humphrey just didn’t find the same comforts of home and family at Antonio del Buono Elementary School.
Next school year, her daughter will begin second grade at St. Mary and join the list of growing alumni.
School founded in 1871 by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The order left in 1888, but it remained open under direction of Katherine Murphy. In 1890, three Presentation sisters from Fitchburg, Mass. took over. In 1918, the Presentation Sisters of San Francisco merged and remained at the school until 1981 when they were replaced by an all-lay faculty. The current facility opened September 1953.
Dear St. Mary School,
My name is Nicholas Grant and I graduated St. Mary school in June of 1998. After my six wonderful years at St. Mary I attended Bellarmine in San Jose. After trying my luck in college at San Jose State University I decided to join the United States Marine Corp. Though I have many reasons for joining the Marines, the most important are to protect the ones that have touched me throughout my life. St. Mary School gave me the foundation to becoming the young man that I am today and it is because of this I fight for our country so all of the future students can have the same opportunities that I have had. I am currently stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and will be shipping out to Iraq in September of this year. In the Marine Corp I am part of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, squadron 367. Our squadron’s nick name is Scare face and we have two types of helicopters, Cobras and Hueys. My primary job is to repair and maintain the flight controls, hydraulic systems, and any airframe panel on the helicopter. All together, my job requires me to work on 80 percent of the aircraft. It is a lot of work, but work that I enjoy everyday. My fellow Marines and I appreciate all of your support and kind gifts that you have sent. In our time of war we can use all the support and love from the ones that we hold close to our hearts. St. Mary School will always be a part of me and all of you will be in my heart as I head off to Iraq this summer. God Bless and take care.
Lance Cpl. Nicholas Grant