“I love working with young people,” she said.
Because some kids had never seen a Catholic nun in full habit, a few initially mistook Sister Jean Marie Squiric for a Muslim.
The veteran educator is the new campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas High School & Middle School at 2121 Reno Drive NE.
(Shortly after this interview, Squiric’s first academic year at Aquinas was interrupted by the pandemic. Students and staff will return Aug. 24 and 25.)
Squiric grew up in Mineral Ridge and attended St. Stephen Catholic Church in Niles.
She began as an elementary school teacher, eventually filling leadership roles as a high school youth minister, religious educator, director of pastoral ministries, bereavement ministries, and a leader of prayer.
Squiric also serves as director of religion at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, as well as a caretaker for the Emmaus House.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Villa Maria College and a master’s in liberal arts and pastoral ministry from Gannon University in Erie, Pa.
Squiric said her interest in religion manifested at an early age. Teaching was a vocation and a calling that lasted for more than 20 years.
“I love working with young people,” she said. “I was connected with St. Thomas by coming over to Emmaus House (a retirement community for diocesan priests). I always enjoyed watching them play football. I used to hide behind the trees. They called me `the white lady behind the tree.′ I’ve really enjoyed my short time here.”
“She’s really been a wonderful asset to the school,” said St. Thomas Aquinas Principal Cara Pribula. “The kids really enjoy having her around; they engage with her. They want to talk to her about things. They feel very comfortable with her. They enjoy intersecting with her.”
“I visit classrooms, I help students with their Masses,” Squiric said. “I talk about general religious concepts. I do administration and I plan retreats. They can talk to me, but sometimes it’s a personal issue, and there’s a confidentiality that you need to respect.”
Squiric said she enjoys her latest mission.
“I love it all,” she said. “I love talking with the students. I enjoy being here at school. Everyone’s very helpful; I just enjoy the atmosphere. It’s so important that students feel comfortable so they can talk.”
Squiric wants to help students understand the role of God in their lives, and how they can relate to him.
“I think students feel more at home in knowing someone is there who can help them,” she said. “The interaction with one another and the staff is important, more so than in a public school. There’s also the benefit of each student growing, learning about who they are and what they can become.”
Noting that not all of Aquinas’ students are Catholic, Squiric said their faiths are respected.
“We each are created by God,” she said.
Pribula said Squiric’s presence energizes students.
“The kids are more upbeat, more interested in our Catholic religion, and more interested in things that maybe they didn’t know about,” she said. “If they have a question, I see they feel more comfortable asking her questions. They have respect for her. They seem more comfortable. She’s got a little sass in her and she’s friendly, and I think kids are responding to that.”
Nuns on a school campus have become a rarity. As with priests, the number of women in religion nationwide has been in decline for decades.
According to research from Georgetown University, the number of nuns in the U.S. has fallen by 72 percent in the last 50 years, from 180,0000 women in 1965 to 50,000 today.
“We’re excited to have a nun on campus; it’s getting harder to find them,” said Kristie Cramer, director of communications for Stark County Catholic Schools. “When Cara and I were in school, we were taught by nuns. I think it’s something that has changed a lot. We’re glad we have that ability here, especially a lady who has dedicated her life to religious service. It’s a a powerful optic that they can see.”
Aquinas, Kramer noted, is one of just three schools in the county with a nun on staff.
“It’s really helped us with our Catholic identity and our approach to things,” she said.