FORT LAUDERDALE | If a Catholic believed in karma, Sister Vivian Gomez might.
One graduate of St. Jerome School,
where she is principal, is her librarian. Another is assistant principal. One taught her how to use computers. Another performed cancer surgery on her.
But for Sister Vivian, who is celebrating a half-century with the Religious Sisters of St. Philip Neri, it's simply about throwing herself into her vocation.
"Be passionate about what you do, because it will come back to you," says Sister Vivian, 70, relaxing in her cozy, cluttered office in the school about a half-mile north of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "The students I taught show they are grateful, and they come back and help."
Many who have known her over her four-plus decades at St. Jerome contribute more than help: They pretty much sing her praises.
"We have been admirers of Sister Vivian for years," said Winnie Amaturo, of the philanthropic Amaturo family. "With her zeal, dedication and belief in leading the school, she has been a real force for powerful things to happen — not only at the school but within the parish."
Sister Vivian's observances actually stretch over several years. June 13, 1963, is when she entered her order. She became a novice on Aug. 15, 1964. On Sept. 25, 1966, she made her initial vows as a full-fledged sister. So 2016 will be her "big celebration," she said.
During an interview at her office, she doesn’t mention the honors on her wall, including membership in several Who's Who directories and the 2003 Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. But she does proudly show a fuzzy snapshot of herself with Mother Teresa.
As she tells it, she and other nuns were watching TV at the convent in 1974, when the president of the parish women's club dropped in and asked if a sister could stay overnight.
"I opened the door and saw Mother Teresa — I was shocked!" Sister Vivian said. "But she came in humbly, with no suitcases, just one little bag. Sister Nilda and I said we were going to Spain to do our final vows (five years after the initial vows). She started talking to us about the commitment we were going to do."
JIM DAVIS | FC
A matter of joy
This Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Education Association was given to Sister Vivian Gomez in 2003.
By any measure, Sister Vivian has kept her commitment. One of 14,000 children in Operation Pedro Pan, she came to the U.S. Aug. 30, 1961. Then she obtained visas for her brother, sister and parents.
In South Florida, she met some Sisters of St. Philip Neri at an intake center for Pedro Pan children. "I liked their joy, their openness," she recalled. The Italian priest, who lived in the 16th century, taught that faith should be a matter of joy.
She visited their convent in Reno, Nev., but her father talked her into delaying a decision for a year. "He thought I wouldn't join," she said. But the following year found her on a plane headed for the order's motherhouse in Barcelona (it has since moved to Madrid).
She was back by 1967 — just six years after the St. Philip Neri Sisters founded a community in South Florida — starting as a fifth-grade teacher at St. Jerome School at the age of 24. She gained a reputation for a cheery style, calling her kids "my groovy students." She once dressed as a clown for Halloween. And she loved swimming, which she still does despite a hip problem.
Sister Vivian also won points for openness to innovations. A few years ago, she had LED lights installed, reducing the electrical bill. This past academic year, St. Jerome gave each middle school student an iPad. In August, the school started intensive French sessions, before and after school.
"People always say it's amazing that someone who has been in education so long is always so open to change," said Caroline Behrman Roberts, the assistant principal and herself a 1986 graduate of St. Jerome. "She always embraces moving forward. I don’t think I would want to work with someone who wasn’t."
Sister Vivian regards St. Jerome as where she really grew up.
"I’ve learned so much from the students and the experiences," Sister Vivian said. "I am very proud of my family and my teachers in Havana. But this is where I truly developed who I am."
Some alumni of the school have achieved their own fame. They include Dr. Richard Childs of the National Institutes of Health, a pioneer in stem cell transplantation; and Dr. Giselle Barreau Ghurani, an oncologist who operated on Sister Vivian for uterine cancer in 2003.
Kathy Murray was drawn back after graduating from St. Jerome. She became an accountant but found she didn’t like the job. She then heard about a vacancy for a school librarian at St. Jerome, and "I found my niche," she said. "Wish I'd found it earlier."
Murray said she sees a "peacefulness" about Sister Vivian that helps calm her as well. "I'm always frenetic, but she is not. She always has a smile. She'll listen and absorb before she opens her mouth. That’s an art."
That calmness has fortified Sister Vivian through fire and water and money crunches.
In 1986, the school was threatened with closure because of failing enrollment and falling revenues. Sister Vivian took the job of principal, then launched a crusade to save the school.
She held breakfasts and spaghetti dinners, raffled a Camaro and got a businessman to donate a parcel of land worth $500,000. She still holds an annual dinner-dance and helps with the church's fall festival.
Mark Schumacher, executive director of the Miami Children's Hospital Foundation, has emceed a half-dozen dinner-dances for Sister Vivian. Several years ago, development director Mark Landia asked him to emcee the fundraiser.
"Mark, stop right there," Schumacher said, then repeated an oft-voiced line: "I can never say no to Sister Vivian. Just give me the date."
JIM DAVIS | FC
Sister Vivian Gomez wants someday to write a book on St. Philip Neri, her order's founder, whose statue is shown here in the sanctuary at St. Jerome.
Why? "She is incredibly grace-filled — you just fall in love with her," said Schumacher, whose daughter, Julie, graduated from St. Jerome in 2007. "And she is incredibly humble. It's never about Sister Vivian. It's about the children, the faith, the parish, her calling. That’s why so many of us are drawn to her."
So established was she by the time Father Michael Grady arrived two years ago, people at first called him "that priest with Sister Vivian," he says with a smile. But the two became close friends and fellow workers.
"She welcomed me with open arms," Father Grady said. "We work together like a hand in a glove. I feel almost guilty that I got this as my first pastorate, with someone like her."
St. Jerome also survived more urgent emergencies. In December 1972, two separate fires burned the church sanctuary and the school office, destroying records.
"I tried to open the door of the office — thank God I could not," Sister Vivian said. "The fire would have burned my lungs."
Worse was Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which scraped the roof off the church, the office and nearly all the classrooms. Debris filled the courtyard.
"It was like World War II — I’ve never seen such destruction," Sister Vivian said in a hushed voice. But she marveled at the army — teachers, parents, parishioners, even children — who helped clean up and rebuild, with able organization by then pastor, now Msgr. Kenneth Schwanger.
"And school opened two or three weeks later," Sister Vivian said. "It truly was amazing."
At 70, she is still looking to the future. On July 5, the school started building a science lab. At the end of the year, the school will launch a fund drive for $500,000 to keep the construction going.
She is looking also toward 2015, the 500th birthday of her favorite saint. She intends to join forces with St. Philip Neri Parish in Miami Gardens to celebrate his life and teachings. A few ideas: sending St. Jerome's choir to sing there, showing a video of the saint, having the pastors preach at each other's church.
One day, Sister Vivian even wants to write a book about St. Philip Neri. He is, after all, her inspiration for joyful, passionate service.
"I want to be remembered as someone who tried to follow the mission of St. Philip Neri: to bring people to God in prayer, to love people passionately, and to pass on the joy of life to other people," she said.