Originally created 04/08/00

Faithful to the tradition



Sister Margaret Mary Mohr bent over to examine a little boy's knee before sending him off with a lesson in playground justice.

"You don't like it when somebody does that to you -- now tell him you are sorry," she said, sounding like a softer version of Tyne Daly.

If the accent alone doesn't give her away, the Franciscan nun tends to punctuate sentences with "I'm from the Bronx originally."

She became principal of Immaculate Conception School on Laney-Walker Boulevard in July. It is her second time at the Augusta elementary school, founded by the American African Mission Fathers in 1913.

"I came here between 1983 and 1987 and taught eighth grade in those years. It was my first assignment as a sister," she said. She also taught religion classes to fifth-graders on up.

All Immaculate Conception's 180 children, from kindergarten through eighth grade, are taught religion. Only about one-third are Catholic. "We are not asking Baptists to be Catholics. That's not the point. But most of the religious instruction is what would be taught in Catholic school," Sister Margaret Mary said.

Every parent understands that's what's going to happen, she said.

The former librarian also explains to her classes that all Christian peoples are under a large umbrella, called Christianity. "Some people don't think of the Catholic Church in that light," she said.

When the Rev. Allan McDonald, moderator of Immaculate Conception, offers Mass he is careful to explain what is going on in the service because of the various denominations in his audience, she said. "Many of these children are Baptist, and most of them are churchgoers. This is one interesting thing in the South that I find. Most people (here) go to church. You can't say that about the North."

The Catholic system was just what Blanche Maxwell wanted for her daughters.

Although Keshia Maxwell, 9, and Crystal Maxwell, 12, attended public school after moving from New York City to Hephzibah about 18 months ago, they withdrew when they heard about Immaculate Conception. "My girls attended St. Mary's in New York, and I wanted to stick with a Catholic school," Mrs. Maxwell said.

St. Mary and Immaculate Conception are about the same academically, but Mrs. Maxwell said she wishes the neighborhood around the Augusta school was less rundown and the school was more multi-culturalMrs. Maxwell said. She is originally from British Honduras and her husband, Rolando, is from Panama.

Immaculate Conception Church was one of two parishes closed in the early 1970s and merged with the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Immaculate Conception was predominantly black, and the resulting merger made "Holy Trinity very integrated," Sister Margaret Mary said.

The school continued to serve a mainly black enrollment. "We have some white children -- five -- and a number of mixed parentage," Sister Margaret Mary said.

Bill Harper, pastoral assistant at Holy Trinity, sends daughter Rosalynda, 11, and son Kolbe, 9, to the school. The Harpers are white.

His two older children also attended Immaculate Conception, he said. "We were very pleased with what they had achieved academically."

The Harper family also is comfortable about the racial element, he said. "The children don't talk about race problems but personal problems. I think my older children had a greater sense of" racial differences since they had attended public schools before going to Immaculate Conception, he said.

He would like to see a closer link between Holy Trinity and the school, he said.

Holy Trinity and other Augusta-area parishes, as well as individuals, supply Immaculate Conception with volunteers, mentors and financial assistance. About one-third to one-half of the pupils receive tuition subsidies.

Students must still transfer occasionally to a public school out of financial necessity, Sister Margaret Mary said. But "there is no question we can't function without tuition."

Next year tuition will be $225 a month paid over 10 months of the year.

Students come to Immaculate Conception for various reasons. Some are dissatisfied with the public schools. Others are just starting first grade or are new to the area, Sister Margaret Mary said.

The Maxwells decided to leave New York City because it was too crowded, Mrs. Maxwell said. Her husband commutes from his job with the corrections department in New York, a sacrifice he is willing to make for his children's education. "My husband has too many years invested with the department. He cannot just leave at this time. It is a sacrifice for the kids" so that they will have freedom, peace of mind and enjoy their youth, Mrs. Maxwell said.

About eight years ago, another mother, Vanessa Walters of Hephzibah, began working at Immaculate Conception. She will continue teaching computer skills at the school after her youngest, eighth-grader Desmond, 13, graduates this year. "I really hate to see this one go. It breaks my heart. It is amazing what has happened in the last eight years," she said.

Not only has Desmond become a teen-ager, but the computer lab has also grown up.

When she started the lab, the computers ran on big 5 1/4 -inch floppy disks, she said. "I had to teach the children DOS just to get the computer started."

Her skills are a combination of what she learned on the job, in courses and what she picked up on her own. She also gets support from the Information Technology Thought Leaders in Atlanta and other groups, she said.

The lab has about 25 computers. And each of the school's nine classrooms has two or three, she said. "The kids do quite well in high school," she said. Former students frequently e-mail her from college saying how easy it is for them to function, Mrs. Walters said.

She teaches adults after school and this year opened group classes in the school's lab. Courses are $30. So many people wanted private lessons, she couldn't do one-on-one anymore, she said.

Mrs. Walters has more plans for the lab, she said. "I want to get the Internet up at every station."

For information, call 722-9964.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 .