Sunday, January 21, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Sisters make St. Joseph a success

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawaii Four Franciscan nuns from Syracuse, N.Y., sailed into Hilo Bay on Aug. 21, 1900, and changed Big Island education.

That first contingent of Catholic sisters eventually led to the creation of St. Joseph Elementary and High Schools. They would be followed by many more dedicated women, all to be honored Saturday as the Kapiolani Street school marks its centennial.

Centennial fest schedule

Centennial celebration events Jan. 27 (all on school campus): 8:30 a.m. open house; 9:30 a.m. dedication of new garden at entrance to high school; 10:15 a.m. Mass at school gymnasium; 11:30 a.m. lunch ($5 tickets and reservations required at 935-4936); 1 p.m. entertainment.

Two dozen of the 140 nuns who served at St. Joseph over the past century are expected to join the celebration. Many of their former students are eager to renew their ties with the women they say shaped their lives in indelible ways.

Hookena School Principal Mary Correa is a product of St. Joseph. She taught there for years before joining the public school system.

"There was order, rituals and expectations," Correa said. "Dedication is what makes them so special."

She remembers her awestruck reaction at seeing the sisters play baseball or teaching students to dance. "That shocked me at first, but I came to learn these wonderful people were very real," she said.

Correa’s four brothers and three sisters also attended St. Joseph. Six became educators. Her brother James is Hawaii County chief of police.

County Planning Director Chris Yuen attended St. Joseph for 13 years before enrolling at Stanford University. "They sacrificed an incredible amount," he said of the nuns. "They stressed fundamentals and accepted no excuses."
The four nuns are, from left: Sister Stephen Marie Serrao, Sister Marie (foreground), Sister Charlene and Sister Patricia Rapoza.

Hugh Clark • The Honolulu Advertiser

Joe Garcia of Hakalau, the longtime legislator and councilman, sent all three of his sons to St. Joseph and said they performed well at mainland colleges. Two became attorneys and the third a veterinarian. "I believe our sons got the best possible education because of this fantastic group of sisters," Garcia said. "They had great love for each student."

At its peak, St. Joseph had 28 teachers and a combined enrollment of 900. Hilo residents who have been around long enough recall with pride the school’s 1958 state prep basketball title.

The student body has since shrunk to one-third of that. The drop in enrollment is attributed largely to hard economic times after sugar died on the Big Island.

As in the beginning, the school is graced now with four Franciscan nuns: Sister Stephen Marie Serrao, a St. Joseph alumna, Sister Charlene, Sister Marie and Sister Patricia Rapoza.

Unlike the founding sisters, the remaining four are all from the state.

They have vacated their beloved convent and its chapel for a rural home near where Serrao’s Portuguese grandfather once grew grapes before prohibition. The convent is now leased by the parish to a group assisting emotionally disturbed children.

The Franciscan order was founded in 1860 by the Rev. Mother Bernardina Dorn. The Franciscans take their name from St. Francis of Assisi, who rebuilt churches and worked with the poor and sick.

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