Sister Martha reflects on 25 years at Mercymount

Sister Martha reflects on 25 years at Mercymount

Sister Martha Mulligan is retiring after 25 years as principal of Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland. (Breeze photo by Nancy Kirsch)
Retirement celebration and Mass planned for June 11

CUMBERLAND – Sister Martha Mulligan never expected to serve a quarter-century as principal of Mercymount Country Day School, yet here she is, set to retire June 30 from the Sisters of Mercy school. She laughs, recalling, “I was assigned for six years and then another six years … and they approved of what I was doing.”

Have children changed since she started at Mercymount?

“Kids are the same; they’re funny (and) curious, and they each have different attitudes and virtues,” says Mulligan. Technology, however, has changed students’ ability to communicate, she said. “It’s harder to have children focused to be more contemplative, more spiritual … but I think spirituality is the key to living a faith-filled life.”

Mulligan, who was known for her tough fundraising prowess, led the school through two capital campaigns to expand and upgrade the campus facilities at 35 Wrentham Road in Cumberland. Mercymount also embraced technology during her years at the school, with computer labs, interactive whiteboards and other resources, all while holding fast to its mission to “make mercy real.”

The Mercymount family will hold a retirement celebration for Mulligan on Sunday, June 11. A Mass will be held at 2 p.m. at St. John Vianney Church, 3609 Diamond Hill Road, and a reception will follow at 3:30 p.m. at Mercymount.

Sisters of Mercy serves the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. Caring for others and the earth are the hallmarks of the organization, said Mulligan, and the school reflects those values.

In her first year at Mercymount, Mulligan introduced a program – continuing to this day – sending 7th- and 8th-grade students to McAuley Village, McAuley House, ReFocus and Mount St. Rita Health Centre for a half-day of volunteering each month. Upon returning to school, students write their theological reflections on that day’s experiences and discuss them with their classmates and Sister Jeanne Barry, coordinator of the mercy ministry. Many students continue service during summers and after graduation, and some parents volunteer.

The outreach program's other philanthropic initiatives have not gone unnoticed; the Rhode Island Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals named Mercymount the Outstanding Philanthropic Organization in 2014.

Taught to “teach by the book,” Mulligan encourages faculty to be creative in teaching a rigorous academic curriculum. Under her leadership, the school has been recognized as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Teachers have been recognized by the National Catholic Educational Association, and students are accepted at competitive high schools, colleges and graduate schools. Several years ago, the National Catholic Educational Association named Mulligan principal of the year.

Asked what advice she’d offer to her younger self, Mulligan said, “Keep an open mind. Know your own gifts, listen to others who are wiser and be open to new adventures.”

Earlier in her tenure, Mulligan recognized that Mercymount needed to expand, given the growing waiting list and the school’s excellent reputation. She sought advice about expanding the building’s footprint from a parent who had knowledge and experience in construction; a second addition followed a few years later.

When Mulligan arrived at the school, about 300 students filled the kindergarten through 8th-grade classes. In the mid-2000s, enrollment peaked at 450. Now, some 350 students fill pre-school through 8th-grade classes.

Mulligan credits the school’s improvements to wonderful faculty and parents, people she calls “the right arm of the school.” She asserts that she remained open to inspiration from others.

“I could get weepy about that one,” she said. “We’re in it together.”

On the eve of her departure, Mulligan maintains hopes and dreams for Mercymount. Recognizing the need for more individualized attention for children with specific learning differences, she told The Valley Breeze she hopes that Mercymount will have inclusive classrooms under a new principal in the next few years. She’s already hired a special education director and resource teacher to help jump-start that process.

As principal, Mulligan says she created a warm, nurturing environment, one that attracts second and third generations of students, former students as faculty and staff and former parents as board members. Even her etiquette classes for 8th-graders reinforce essential – yet often overlooked – habits and values. Table manners and conversations, writing letters and thank you notes, and other social graces are addressed in the six-week required class from which everyone graduates, she said, laughing.

Mulligan has no regrets; she’s been pulled or pushed to do all she wanted to do during her time at Mercymount.

“I’m happy with what’s happened, and I’m grateful to God and to all the people who’ve made a difference in the school,” she said. “It’s not just me.”

She hopes people will remember her as kind, fair and firm and that the legacy of mercy will continue beyond her tenure.

Calling herself “shy, but a performer,” Mulligan has shown her acting chops more than once at Mercymount. Her retirement plans include visiting far-flung friends and family and seeking new opportunities to fulfill her vow of service.

Mulligan says she will most miss her daily interactions with the children, and their hugs and smiles – first as students and later as mature young adults returning to visit. She knows, too, that she will miss the faculty and staff she’s worked with for so many years.

For more on Mulligan’s June 11 retirement celebration (RSVP by this Saturday, June 3), visit www.mercymount.org and find the “Celebrate Sr. Martha” link.