By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — Ten years ago, Sister Mary Murphy founded Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School so the Sisters of Notre Dame could continue educating the children of immigrants.
Now, Sister Murphy is stepping down as president of the school in June to spend more time promoting the school to donors and increase the number of businesses for the school’s corporate work-study program. She will now hold the position of Founder/President Emeritus.
“I feel so passionate about the people who believed in us. I don’t want them to lose that contact with us,” she said.
Notre Dame Cristo Rey opened in 2004 with 80 students at the former St. Mary High School building founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in partnership with Cristo Rey Network.
Students pay $6,750 for their tuition by working one day a week at businesses including Mitre, Putnam Investments, Mercury Systems, Enel Green Power and parochial schools in Andover, Lawrence, North Andover, Methuen. The family tuition portion is $2,800.
Since its first graduating class, all 320 alumni have been accepted to four-year schools.
Last year, the Cristo Rey network ranked Notre Dame in Lawrence number 1 for its corporate work-study program.
“Without her, the school would not be there,” said Robert Birdsell, former president and CEO of Cristo Rey Network in Chicago. “When people would tell her they could not start a Cristo Rey school in Lawrence, she never took no for an answer and said, ‘We’ll find a way.’ Many people have amazing leadership skills and others have vision, she has both.”
In the five years Birdsell was with Cristo Rey, he worked with at least 40 or 50 school leaders.
“She was one of the best and the one with the longest standing tenure, which is why the school is so successful because of her immense responsibility and commitment that the school is going to work,” Birdsell said.
When she first came to Lawrence, Sister Murphy established the Notre Dame Education Center which she also directed from 1998 to 2003. The adult learning center still offers English as a second language and citizenship classes.
She was recruited to start Notre Dame after the work she did in Washington Heights, N.Y. with a full-service school that partnered with the Child Aid Society. Like Lawrence, many of the students were of Dominican descent.
“I’ve always believe that the church needs to be in the inner city working with the poor and so has my heart,” Sister Murphy said.
“This has been the most rewarding out of all ministries,” she sad of Notre Dame Cristo Rey. “If it wasn’t for the school, they would not be where they are today. They are the new Lawrence, they are the new hope of Lawrence and are writing a different story.”
Long-time educator Patricia Karl was the first person Sister Murphy approached when she was doing an assessment of Lawrence’s educational needs.
“When you’re a school founder, you’re the person that envisions what it can be and Sister Mary has done that effectively,” Karl said.
Karl said Sister Mary and the Sisters of Notre Dame had a unique vision for the school and its corporate work study.
“It was a challenging model because of the need of identifying outside sponsors with all the economic inconsistencies. She has done a good job in identifying and retaining sponsors and really speaks very well of her,” Karl said.
Sister Murphy can now focus all her energy on finding more businesses to establish work-study programs for the students.
“That’s a really important role and Mary can do that better than anyone. For kids growing up in this community it’s empowering for them to be in a workplace, be accepted, and have people see them as successful students,” Karl said.
Sister Murphy said stepping down is bittersweet.
“It feels OK in my head, but in my heart will be hard. The school’s mission is what wakes me up in the morning,” she said.
Sister Murphy has been rewarded for her work in Lawrence with the Tribune to Women in Business and Industry by Greater Lawrence YWCA and the Bishop Cheverus Medal by the Archdiocese of Boston for her service to the Catholic community.
A search committee has been formed to find a successor.