Written by Mary Beth Peabody
Mary Ellen Schurtz’s last day as principal of Assumption Regional Catholic School in Galloway was June 28, 2017. She died July 17, leaving a legacy of faith, love, commitment and courage to her family and the Assumption community she served for 26 years.
Two days after news of her death reached the Assumption School and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish communities, more than 300 mourners — mostly school families — gathered for a prayer service at the school. And four days later, hundreds came to say goodbye. Those who stayed for her funeral Mass filled the church.
“This church and this school were so much her home,” said son Tom in his eulogy. He spoke passionately about Schurtz’s capacity to love and nurture — not only as a mother, but as an educator.
“Faith molded her and she modeled that to anyone who knew her. … The young women who met my mother were emboldened by her sense of purpose; and the young men who my mother taught understood that it is in our actions that we must live through compassion.”
In his homily, celebrant Father Michael Matveenko, long-time friend and former pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, described Schurtz as a woman whose life revolved around faith, family and Catholic school.
“In 26 years, she gave her whole self to the people who made up the Assumption School community, and she did it so well because she understood [every] point of view,” said Father Matveenko. He traced Schurtz’ roots through Catholic elementary and high school in Philadelphia; LaSalle University; as a young teacher at Saint Agnes in Clark, New Jersey; and then at Assumption as a parent, volunteer, teacher, assistant principal and principal.
“She could have made a lot more money in the public school system, but she was devoted to Catholic school. … and her faith in God. She wanted to share that and help young people understand and grow and be rooted in their faith,” added Father Matveenko.
“Mrs. Schurtz always made you feel you’re enough for the world. She wanted to inspire young women like myself,” said Erin Brennan after the funeral. Erin is a recent Assumption school graduate and first recipient of the Mary Ellen Schurtz Leading by Example award.
Erin said she would love to come back to Assumption one day as principal. In the meantime, she will start her freshman year at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, a choice she said she made because of the morals and values she found in her Assumption home.
Former student Frank Brogden talked about his long history with Schurtz, who was his sixth grade teacher more than 20 years ago at the original Assumption School in Pomona. “She cared about every kid,” he said, recalling his love of Schurtz as his sixth grade teacher. “She’s the reason we put our kids in [Assumption] school.”
Brogden said he feels positive about the transition of leadership at Assumption, where new principal Joan Dollinger, who worked with Schurtz in the past, is eager to continue the school’s mission.
Father Nick Dudo agrees. Father Dudo, who was recently appointed Vicar for Clergy for the Diocese of Camden, spent the last six years as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. He and Schurtz worked closely together, facing economic challenges and declining enrollment on the heels of a school closure and the relocation of Assumption school and church.
Father Dudo said he particularly valued Schurtz’ faith and calm demeanor. ‘“We’ll figure it out,’ she’d say. She had a presence, an ability to listen.”
Father Dudo said Schurtz’ leadership qualities helped establish a strong foundation for the school — a foundation rooted in Christ.
“If we build the foundation on Christ, he is the thread… The continuity is in Christ,” said Father Dudo.
In photographs, memories, stories and song, Mary Ellen Schurtz was undeniably present during the recent celebrations of her life. But Nancy Dixon, advancement director at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional School in Mays Landing, witnessed the essence of Schurtz in one lone alumnus.
“A young man sitting in my pew came to me after Mass and said, ‘I don’t know you, but I want to share a story with you. For the first few days of school at Assumption, I was sitting by myself in the cafeteria until one day Mrs. Schurtz introduced me to some other kids and I sat at their table. Mrs. Schurtz said, “you will never sit alone again,” and I never did.
“‘Today, I was sitting alone in the pew. Lots of people were coming into church and sitting in other pews all around me and I was thinking I was sitting alone. Then you came in and sat in my pew and I felt like Mrs. Schurtz made that happen. She was making sure I didn’t sit alone.’”
A scholarship fund has been established in memory of Mary Ellen Schurtz. For more information and to donate, go to https://arcsgalloway.org/schurtz-scholarship/