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3 nuns - with some higher help - keep West Phila. school alive and a beacon

In a hall at St. Francis De Sales are (from left) Denita Suggs, her sons Gregory and Clinton, and Sisters Mary McNulty and Constance Marie Touey.
In a hall at St. Francis De Sales are (from left) Denita Suggs, her sons Gregory and Clinton, and Sisters Mary McNulty and Constance Marie Touey.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN/Daily News

TEN YEARS ago, Denita Suggs, struck down by multiple sclerosis after a lifetime of hard work, climbed out of bed and out of her depression. She fought aggressively to get her life back - for the sake of her beloved children.

Fifteen years ago, Sister Constance Marie Touey and Sister Jeannette Lucey saw financially strapped Catholic schools closing in Philadelphia's impoverished neighborhoods.

They realized that their school, St. Francis de Sales, was next, and they fought aggressively to get its life back - for the sake of their beloved children.

So when it came time for Suggs to choose a school that would give her daughter, Robyn, a spiritual foundation and a strong education that would carry her out of poverty, Suggs chose St. Francis de Sales, on 47th Street near Springfield Avenue in West Philadelphia.

It was a match made in heaven between a mom and two nuns who refused to let the crush of adversity ruin the vulnerable young lives in their care.

Sister Constance, the principal, and Sister Jeannette, a teacher - both in their 24th year at St. Francis de Sales - and Suggs are bound by the hard-won wisdom that you can struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds.

And, with faith, you can triumph.

This is their story.

For 15 years, Suggs worked in security, customer service and food service for two airlines at Philadelphia International Airport.

After her daughter, Robyn, was born in 1992, Suggs began experiencing sudden bouts of imbalance. "I would be walking down a flight of steps and I would fall," she said. "What did I trip over? When I looked, there was nothing.

"The doctors kept telling me that I was fine, that it was just an emotional thing. But I wasn't fine. I would tell them I felt numb all over my body. They said I was imagining things. I thought I was going crazy."

Finally, in 1998, five years after the onset of the symptoms, Suggs went to a neurologist who diagnosed her affliction as multiple sclerosis: a neurological disease that was causing her dizziness, imbalance, fatigue and difficulty walking.

"I had been so confident about always being able to care for my children," she said. "But this disease was haunting me. I wasn't able to work anymore. I just lay there in bed and I wanted to disappear. I mean, literally disappear.

"I'd been a fighter all my life," Suggs said. "But I just gave up. My mom washed me, fed me, took me to doctors' appointments. She and my stepdad took care of the kids. They did everything for me. I stayed in the bed. I wanted to die."

Her firstborn son, Albert, then a seventh-grader, saved her by relentlessly refusing to let his mother give up.

"He came into the room every morning before school and opened the blinds," Suggs said. "I didn't want to see any sun, but there it was. I wanted him to just leave me alone but he'd talk to me as if I was the same person I always was. He'd tell me about everything that was going on with him - his teachers, his football team, this girl he had an eye for, how the flowers were growing in our yard or how the flowers weren't growing in our yard. He was always cheerful. I thought, 'What is wrong with this kid? Can't he see what's happened to me?' "

"I was totally lost," Suggs said. "He brought me back. Once, I asked him, 'What made you keep coming into my room and picking on me?' He said, 'Well, I knew you were going to get better.' Now, I thank him for that every day."

After months, Suggs dragged herself out of bed and sat in a chair. "I couldn't get back in the bed again," she said. "I realized that I had young children and I had to get myself together for them. I got closer to God. That helped."

When her daughter Robyn started kindergarten at St. Frances de Sales, Suggs said, "the school embraced my family."

As the years went by, she sent her sons there: Gregory, now 13, a seventh-grader; and Clinton, 6, a first-grader.

Last year, Suggs moved out of her parents' house. "They were beautiful throughout this whole thing but they needed their space again," she said. "I got a place of our own. We didn't even have furniture."

Just before last Christmas, when Sister Mary McNulty, who had recently joined the school as Sister Constance's co-principal, visited the Suggs' home to bring "Santa sacks" of gifts for the children, she noticed the lack of furniture.

She returned with beds, dressers, everything the family needed.

"My children had a wonderful Christmas," Suggs said, "and it was all thanks to the school. I look at my daughter, Robyn, now at 15, how she carries herself, how well she is doing at Hallahan High School, how confident she is - and I know St. Francis prepared her so well. I saw an essay Robyn wrote for school about me having multiple sclerosis. It brought tears to my eyes. I didn't think she understood. But she does."

Unable to work and saddled with medical bills since she was stricken with MS, Suggs can barely provide food for her children. She could not afford the school's annual $2,400 tuition for any of them.

Fortunately, Sister Constance and Sister Jeannette, who have spent years rescuing the school and its students from being crushed by poverty, are adept at finding ways to give children of poor families access to a St. Francis de Sales education. It is as much a part of their mission as their never-ending campaign to keep their K-8 school alive.

"We had been on the dole for years," said Sister Constance. "The school was very poor, the church was very poor and the parish was very poor. We were surviving on donations from the diocese's interparochial fund, which is the dole, but we knew there was a limit to how long that could go on."

She and Sister Jeannette knew that candy sales and raffles would not save the school. "We needed major gifts from people who believed in our mission and wanted to be a part of it," Sister Constance said.

The two nuns traveled all over the country, "wherever they were offering training workshops on ways to raise money to save parochial schools," Sister Constance said. "How you contact alumni and hold reunions, how you write to foundations for grants, how you sit down with people and show them what you want them to invest in."

"People don't want to give to a sinking ship so we never talked from a 'poor me' status even when we were on the dole," Sister Constance said. "We always said, 'Look at these children. Look how wonderful they are.' "

The nuns showed donors a traditional Catholic school that served poor and mostly non-Catholic, predominantly African-American neighborhood children, and refugees and immigrants from 42 African, Asian and Latino countries.

"The diversity here is just magnificent," Sister Constance said. "And even though 75 percent of our children are not Catholic, this is a Catholic school in every way: We pray every day, we have religion class, we learn about Jesus, we go to church during school time. The children get good Christian values along with academic excellence. Our families, whether they're Baptists or whatever, want that."

Many of those families, she said, cannot pay the $2,400 annual tuition.

"Sister Jeannette is one of 13 children and I'm one of 7," said Sister Constance. "When we were young, our parents would never have been able to send us to Catholic school if there had been tuition."

So a big part of what was driving the nuns' aggressive fight to save the school was the mission to educate children who couldn't afford to go there.

"More than 100 of our 510 children get assistance from donations of over $130,000 a year," Sister Constance said, including major support from Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS) and individuals like John "Mr. Jack" Toebe, 83, a Main Line donor who has been paying students' tuitions since the Vietnam boat people came here in the '80s. Twenty years later, he's paying for African immigrants and refugees.

A few years ago, the nuns wanted to send Toebe a thank-you video, so they asked all students in school one day who were being helped by "Mr. Jack" to report to the front steps to be photographed.

Fifty-four children showed up.

The donor network is so strong that when Sister Constance got a phone call a couple of years ago about a family with three children who had come to Philadelphia after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, "I just took them in on faith."

Two days later, a donor called out of the blue, offering to pay tuition for three children.

"Sister Constance always says that when we have needs, it takes one day for the prayer to go up to heaven and one day for the answer to come back down," Sister Jeannette said.

On a recent wintry afternoon, Gregory Suggs was asked what his seven years at St. Francis de Sales have meant to him.

He did not take the question lightly. He thought long and hard about his answer.

Finally, in a voice just above a whisper, he said, "It's a blessing."

Denita Suggs' smile was a silent amen.

The nuns, watching the mother and child, knew that the mission to which they have devoted 24 years is alive and well.

"We are both grandmother-age now, even if Sister Jeannette doesn't want to admit it," Sister Constance said. Both nuns laughed.

"The other day, I was walking down the hall when I heard a voice say something behind me," Sister Jeannette said. "I turned and asked the little girl standing there what she had said. She said, 'Good morning, grandmom. You taught my mom, so you are my grandmom.'

"We are teaching our children's children," Sister Jeannette said happily. "Can you believe it?" *