Ancillae-Assumpta Academy, a private Catholic school in Wyncote, has received the largest gift in its history, officials announced Tuesday: $1 million.
It’s a donation of stunning size for the elementary school of 575 students, usually the type of gift reserved for universities. Amy Lintner, Ancillae-Assumpta’s director, described the grant as “transformative.”
Nance K. Dicciani, the donor, graduated in 1965 from Ancilla Domini Academy, the former girls’ high school sponsored by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the religious order that now runs Ancillae-Assumpta Academy. Dicciani, a chemical engineer and retired executive with Honeywell International Inc., chose to donate to the school because, she said, “the education that I received with the Handmaids really set me up for my entire career.”
Dicciani grew up in Roxborough — on Ripka Street — and attended Holy Family School in Manayunk before she attended Ancilla Domini Academy in Germantown.
When she was a young woman, some family members encouraged Dicciani to go into teaching or nursing, considered acceptable professionals for women at the time. But she had different dreams, encouraged by her parents, the nuns, and lay teachers, and sharpened in classes that challenged her and leadership roles in student government, sports, glee club, and other school organizations.
Mother Pilar Ymaz, one of Dicciani’s favorite high school teachers, gave her a clear message.
“She looked me square in the eye and said, ‘I dare you to do what you want to do,’ ” Dicciani said. “I took charge of things, and was encouraged at school. Often, I was the only woman in my field, but I had absolutely no difficulty keeping up with everybody else. I was incredibly well prepared."
Dicciani became the only woman in Villanova’s engineering school, earning a bachelor’s degree there, then a master’s at the University of Virginia, a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.B.A. at Penn’s Wharton School.
Despite her credentials, Dicciani encountered people who dismissed her. She vividly recalled one meeting where a top engineer “walked up to me without any introduction and said, ‘I’ll take mine black.’ And still, the nuns had taught me a degree of confidence to realize that was not my problem."
Dicciani, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women,” is now retired from full-time employment but serves on multiple corporate boards, runs a start-up, and just retired from Villanova’s Board of Directors.
She supports Villanova, Dicciani said, but has “a soft spot in my heart for the nuns," and believes that most of the world’s problems can be solved with science and engineering. Supporting strong science education at the primary level, she said, is a delight.
“We need more people in those areas,” Dicciani said. “That’s where the love of science begins.”
Lintner, Ancillae-Assumpta’s director, said the gift will further the work the school has already been recognized for — by the U.S. Department of Education, which named it a National Blue Ribbon School in 2018, and by Apple, which singled it out for integrating technology into the curriculum.
The gift will go toward the school’s $5 million capital campaign, designed to focus on engineering and science education. Ancillae-Assumpta plans an “innovation lab,” three science labs, a digital production studio, and other spaces.
The school, which educates children in preschool through eighth grade, has an annual tuition of $10,200. It’s not part of the archdiocesan network of parish schools.
“This gift is going to really allow us to enhance the facility to match the curriculum and instruction in a really transformative way,” Lintner said.
Sister Kathleen Heilbig, the school’s assistant director and treasurer, was a few years ahead of Dicciani in high school, and remembers her as a star. Now, she shines in a different way, Sister Kathleen said.