Fitzgerald Hall, Xavier’s original building; Photo courtesy Xavier College Preparatory

Sister Act

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: February 2018
Group Free

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, nun-run Xavier College Preparatory has changed as much as Phoenix itself – yet some habits remain the same.

The year was 1833, and five nuns-to-be from Ireland stepped off a ship anchored near New York City harbor. A nativist movement was afoot, so Irish immigrants and Catholics were not particularly welcome in the U.S., and the education and employment of women was not smiled upon. But these young women had held jobs while starting a school for girls in the slums of Dublin. And they were determined to continue their mission in Philadelphia – whatever challenges befell them.

As one of the women teetered down the rope ladder, her purse came unlatched, and her companions watched as their collective savings spilled into the sea. They docked at the pier and searched for the priest who’d invited them to start a school in Philadelphia – a priest who, unbeknownst to them, had no authority to do so and was a few fish short of a hatstand. He was nowhere to be found. They were broke, homeless and desperate. A young man who would later become president of Jesuit-run Georgetown University saw their plight. He gave them money to get to Philadelphia, where they founded a school and the order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM).

Sister Mary Joan Fitzgerald with a student in the early 1960s; Photo Courtesy BVM SistersThis act of kindness sparked a lasting connection between the BVMs and the Jesuits. A century later, the favor was returned. The Jesuits who ran Brophy High School, broke and shuttered due to the Great Depression, asked the BVMs to come to Phoenix and open a grade school in their empty buildings at Central and Highland avenues. So the sisters started co-ed St. Francis Xavier, named after the parish church. When the students came of age, the BVMs founded the all-girl’s Xavier High School, with just three nuns and 11 students. That was 75 years ago, and Xavier College Preparatory is still run by three BVM nuns, though president Sister Joan Fitzgerald hastens to add, “[We] were not the three nuns who opened the school in 1943.”

Xavier has become a powerhouse in Arizona education, even attracting students from other states and countries. The U.S. Department of Education named it a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 1991, 1996 and 2013. In 2007, the Siemens Foundation and College Board ranked it the top high school in the state. Alums include former Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, news commentator Meghan McCain, and Saturday Night Live cast member Aidy Bryant.

During its Diamond Jubilee year, the school is reflecting on its many accomplishments since students took “speech technique and poise” in two bare-bones rooms at Brophy, preparing them mostly to be secretaries, teachers or housewives. The first major changes occurred in the ’50s. The parish bought land for facilities and a convent. Brophy reopened in 1952. The following year, 174 Xavierites carried their desks one at a time from Brophy to their new site near Seventh Street and Highland Avenue.

In 1957, a student started at Xavier who would, decades later, turn the school’s athletic program into one of the country’s winningest: Lynn Winsor. She played several sports including softball and basketball, then went to Arizona State University, where she was repeatedly elected sorority president. Winsor’s passion for leadership was fanned by lessons she learned at Xavier, she says. “Empowering women, even back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was part of the deal.”

After college, Winsor indulged in a few rebellious years – cruising around on her two motorcycles – before she listened to the little voice in her head and became a nun. Soon after, she took a job at a Catholic high school in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald, a quietly visionary nun with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, was on her way to teach in California when she stopped at the Xavier convent. It was summer, the air conditioning was broken, and she was sleeping under a wool blanket. “I woke up in the middle of the night,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If this is what Arizona is, God save me from it.’”

Three years later she was assigned to Xavier.

“When I came here, Phoenix was a little city,” Fitzgerald recalls. “Xavier has grown as the city has grown, and I think that’s what’s so exciting. The growth of Phoenix has forced Xavier to keep on top of education and grow with it… And to see all the opportunities that have grown for women I think is just incredible.”

Fitzgerald, Sister Joanie Nuckols and Sister Lynn Winsor; photo courtesy of Duke PhotographyFitzgerald became principal in 1974. That year, she recruited Sister Lynn Winsor and Sister Joanie Nuckols, who were both teaching at the coincidentally named Xavier High School in St. Louis. Three years later, she promoted Winsor to vice principal for activities and athletic director. At the time, Xavier sports teams had won four regional championships, one state runner-up title, and one state championship in 34 years of competition. Today, they’ve won 201 regionals, 52 state runner-up titles and 132 state championships. The golf team, coached by Winsor (who doesn’t play golf), is particularly successful, winning 34 state championships.

“[The teams’ success is] not me, either; that’s because we’ve hired great coaches, we have so many good student athletes, and we have supportive parents,” Winsor says, adding, with characteristic cheeky humor, “So that’s my department. I’m doing very well. I never was humble. I took three vows: poverty, celibacy and obedience. Humility was not on the list.”

Students may not take vows, but they do have a commitment to service. Every student is required to complete 50 hours of community service, but they do far more, contributing a total of 30,000-plus hours annually. They also exhibit a dedication to academic excellence. “One of the things that struck me when I got here [is] you never ask a senior, ‘What are you going to do next year?’” says now-principal Nuckols. “You always ask them, ‘Where are you going to school?’ Which is why 100 percent of them are going on to [college].”

One might expect a Catholic school run by a trifecta of nuns to be traditionalist and backward-looking. Nuckols says that’s a misconception about Catholic education. “Sister Lynn and I are celebrating our 50th year [as BVMs], and I think the one constant has been the word ‘change,’” she says, referring to both the BVM order and Xavier. “It was always evolving, always changing, and it was like, ‘OK, we’ll figure this out.’”

On its current site, Xavier has evolved from one building to 20 acres with state-of-the-art technology, arts facilities and athletic equipment. Its 1,200 students can make robots, compose rock music and solve engineering problems virtually with students in Egypt.

One thing has been constant since 1943: community. Winsor cites the example of the school’s swim coach, Maureen Rankin, who died recently. Winsor visited her in the hospital and assured her the Xavier family would help take care of her children, and both Xavier and Brophy students filled St. Francis Xavier Church for her funeral. “Xavier is a community of love,” Winsor says. “I think we’re a family. Granted, we have 10,000 graduates now. So that’s a big family.”

COOL CLASSES
So long, “poise” classes. Thanks in part to generous resources (tuition this year is $19,143, though nearly 45 percent of students receive financial aid), modern Xavierites can learn to:

• Fly planes on a flight simulator in three aviation classes.

• Write rock, classical and electronica with Garage Band in the music composition class.

• Design Canalscape shade structures, water sustainability solutions and more through the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program.

• Paint in France, learn creative writing in Ireland, and build schools and sanitation facilities in Nicaragua through international studies programs.