Friday, September 29, 2017
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
Photography: CRISTINA CABRERA JARRO| FC
MIAMI | Sister Margaret Ann Laechelin never imagined that wielding a chainsaw to cut tree branches post Hurricane Irma would draw local, national, and even international media attention. An off-duty Miami-Dade Police officer captured footage on his phone of the sister in action, shared it on the agency’s Twitter account, and the video went viral.
So far, it has more than 6,000 retweets, more than 13,000 likes, and more than 6,200 shares. It drew the attention of ABC, CBS, CNN, Telemundo, Univision, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and more. The footage reached Canada, England, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Spain and beyond. The “chainsaw nun” even got a mention at the Emmy Awards.
The message was simple: If a sister in full habit can bear the Florida heat to help clean up from the storm, so can anyone else.
“It’s something that she did out of the kindness of her heart. She didn’t expect anything out of it,” said Victoria Silveria, a student at Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School in southwestern Miami-Dade County, where Sister Margaret Ann is principal.
When the school reopened Sept. 19, the Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles was back at her real job: welcoming students in the drop-off area, where she always waits for them after attending morning Mass in the school chapel.
They greeted her with, “Sister, you’re famous,” and “You looked awesome on the news.”
“It has brought joy and excitement to students and they feel proud about their school,” said Sister Margaret Ann, a religious for 27 years who describes herself as articulate but shy. “Everybody knows we exist now around the world.”
Even after her 15 seconds of fame, she maintains that one of her greatest accomplishments is being principal of ACC, where she and her faculty make it a priority to put their students first.
“It’s what they deserve,” she said.
Sister Margaret Ann keeps her office door open: an invitation to any faculty member or student who might have a question or need help. She eats the cafeteria food, and sits down at a long table in the teachers’ dining room to converse with her staff. The image is not that of a principal with her faculty, but of a family sitting down to eat.
“It’s fun leading a group of professionals that are excited to be here,” said Sister Margaret Ann. “The joy of the Holy Spirit is here, and the students notice when their teachers are happy.”
As she walks the halls, she is aware of what every student, every teacher is doing. She recognizes that one student musician traded his guitar for a violin. She asks another couple if they saw each other during the hurricane hiatus.
She stops one student, John Dennis, to congratulate him for his off-the-charts ACT scores — and remind him that teachers will continue to help him with college prep, so he can improve his odds at acquiring scholarships and being admitted to top universities.
“Each child has a story,” Sister Margaret Ann said. “They’re not just coming from perfect situations, and we want to try to help them with their needs.”
She believes continued encouragement and love will make all the difference for her students, now and in the future, and that’s what she and her faculty strive to provide.
“[Students] don’t believe in themselves,” she said. “They don’t have people that believe in them, with the families that are split, and even with our society and media. So much of it doesn’t tell them that they are valuable, and that is so contrary to our Catholic faith and the reality of the way that God has made us.”
ACC reminds its 300 or so students that they have a purpose in life, but it is up to them to discern it. They are also taught they must work hard to achieve their goals.
“They’re not going to learn through osmosis,” Sister Margaret Ann joked.
Over its 19-year history, ACC has grown academically if not in enrollment. It obtained AdvancED accreditation, offers dual enrollment courses, STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), travel abroad, and more. Last year, it established a Don Bosco Program for students with developmental disabilities.
Many of those enrolled are children of immigrants who go on to be the first in their families to go to college.
“ACC attracts a lot of international students and we want to help them,” said Sister Margaret Ann. “My heart goes out to these families that are willing to send their students here because they want a better life for their children than they had in their country.”
The school’s athletic teams also have won district and regional titles and reached the state finals in football, baseball and basketball. Sister Margaret Ann herself played basketball in high school and college, so she knows that sports are essential for many. But academics remain a priority, and an academic advising program for athletes helps them balance both.
The school’s relatively low enrollment means many teachers are doing double duty in and out of the classroom. That’s also a source of pride for Sister Margaret Ann. “They’re willing to do anything to improve the school and themselves. They are on fire to help these students.”
The principal and her fellow Carmelites — Sisters Catherine Marie, Immaculata and Mercedes — rode out Irma inside the school, accompanied by ACC’s beloved mascot, Archie, an English bulldog who lives in the convent and spends his days in the school.
While the sisters spent time in prayer, they also spent time patrolling the halls, mopping up water that entered through windows or leaked from the ceiling. After the storm passed, they found trees down, twisted bleachers, damage to the baseball field and dugout, and a shredded outdoor dining pavilion. The cost of repairs could reach $300,000.
But the immediate task was cleanup, so the school could reopen as soon as possible. Over 100 volunteers showed up to help over three days, including faculty, students, parents, alumni and neighborhood residents.
Relief, in the form of cash assistance, is also trickling in. A Franciscan-run high school in Queens, N.Y., is donating $10,000, a gift of gratitude for ACC’s assistance to another Franciscan school in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
And faithful to the example of their chainsaw-wielding principal, ACC is not content to receive. Faculty and students are gathering donations for those affected by Harvey in Texas as well as St. Peter Church in Big Pine Key, the parish hardest hit by Irma in the archdiocese.
“At our school, we teach our students to do what they can to help other people,” said Sister Margaret Ann, repeating what she told more than a dozen media outlets after her chainsaw video went viral. “And now is the time.”