Marie Gallagher, 72, of Cherry Hill, a Catholic-school teacher and principal best known for keeping Little Flower High School for Girls open when it was on the verge of closing in 1992, died Wednesday, Jan. 8, of a brain hemorrhage at Jeanes Hospital.
Born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, Miss Gallagher attended St. Bernard’s School and St. Hubert’s Catholic High School for Girls, where she taught many years later.
She graduated from Neumann College, and earned a master’s degree in education from Villanova University and a master’s degree in administration from what is now Rider University.
Miss Gallagher began her teaching career at St. Hubert’s and moved to Little Flower, in Hunting Park, where she served from 1986 to 1995 as a teacher, dean of students, and principal. She is the only lay principal the school has had.
It was that role of principal that she made her biggest mark. In 1992, as the Philadelphia Archdiocese adopted an open-enrollment policy, allowing students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, there was doubt among diocesan officials that Little Flower and nine other schools could attract enough students and funds to keep operating. The officials moved to shut them down.
On Oct. 9, 1992, Miss Gallagher announced to the student body in the auditorium that the school would close.
“When they heard the announcement, everyone was in tears,” Miss Gallagher told the Northeast Times. “There was crying, people were upset. I said, ‘We don’t have time to cry, we have to work, we have a lot to do.’”
For the next eight weeks, she led a flurry of activity to keep Little Flower in the public eye and raise money from alumnae to prove the school’s commitment to staying open.
Miss Gallagher and other Little Flower officials drafted a sustainability plan. Meanwhile, the donations rolled in. Small bills and checks amounted to $90,000. The school recruited 244 freshmen for the following year.
At one point, in a meeting at Archbishop Ryan High School, Little Flower’s students and officials made a pitch to Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. Miss Gallagher joked that they “literally stalked him” with entreaties to save the school, the Northeast Times reported.
It worked. On Dec. 14, 1992, with all the major Philadelphia news outlets present, Miss Gallagher announced to the student body that the school would stay open. “There was a lot of tears and cheers,” said Miss Gallagher’s sister, Eileen Smith.
Though Miss Gallagher moved on in her career, she continued to be a significant presence at Little Flower events. “She was there at the 80th anniversary Mass and celebration in September 2019 to enjoy the fruits of her tremendous efforts,” the school said.
After moving to South Jersey in 1994, she served in the Runnemede School District as principal of Bingham and Downing Elementary Schools. She retired in 2013.
As news of Miss Gallagher’s death circulated, there was an outpouring of online tributes from colleagues and former students.
“She was my English teacher freshman year at St. Hubert’s,” wrote Patricia DiJulio of Cherry Hill. “Miss Gallagher was a wonderful teacher, my personal favorite from high school. She made learning fun.
“I ran into her seven years ago in Runnemede. I couldn’t believe she remembered me, my sisters, and cousins from St. Hubert’s.”
“Marie was a beautiful soul,” wrote Alyssa Ziff of Frankford, Del. “It was a privilege to have worked with her and shared friendship professionally. My prayers are with her family as they grieve.”
She is survived by her parents, James J. and Mary Leonard Gallagher; three brothers; two sisters; and a large extended family.
A viewing will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, and again Wednesday, Jan. 15, from 10 to 11 a.m., at Holy Eucharist Roman Catholic Church, 344 Kresson Rd., Cherry Hill. A Funeral Mass will follow at 11. Burial is private.