Planting Roots with the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz
The history of Mount Carmel School began long before 1952 with a group of sisters who would, for many years, provide the bedrock of teaching at the school: the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz (MMB).
Crossing two oceans and three continents on October 30, 1927, Sisters Loreto Zubia, Inocencia Urizar, Pilar Lorenzo, Maria Teresa Cortazar and Aurora Chopitea set sail from their motherhouse of Berriz in the north of Spain and arrived on Saipan on March 4, 1928. Fifteen days later, on the Feast of Saint Joseph, they opened their first school. While the onset of the Great Depression and World War II hampered the growth of education on the island, the Mercedarian Sisters continued their ministry, teaching doctrina and offering classes in Spanish, music, the arts, and later, cooking and sewing.
Surviving the tragedy of war, in 1951, the Mercedarian sisters opened Our Lady of Mercy Kindergarten, which we now know as the Sister Remedios Early Childhood Development Center. That kindergarten would set the stage for Mount Carmel School, providing the first batch of first grade students when the school opened the following year.
In 1952, Father Arnold Bendowsky received blessings from Bishop Baumgartner of the Diocese of Agana, Guam, to provide Catholic education on Saipan. However, Saipan’s fledgling Catholic community had few resources to build a school, so Father Arnold had to improvise.
Using his training in masonry, Father Arnold worked with a group of parents to remodel the old sugar mill factory generator house and turned it into the first classrooms for the school. The building, which survived repeated bombings during World War II, provided the ideal structure to house the new school. With large open windows that allowed the cool breeze to flow through the building and two stories of big rooms to accommodate the demands for Catholic education, this survivor of the war served the school well for many years, and continues to stand to this day.
Securing a building, however, was only half of the challenge. The school needed teachers and leaders. For that, Father Arnold turned to the Mercedarian Sisters and recruited Sister Ana Maria as the first school superior and Sisters Dolores Larranaga and Pia Goichoechea as the first teachers. As the school grew, so did the commitment of the Mercedarian Sisters. In 1953, Sister Bertha Salazar became the first principal and taught second grade. In the next two years, Sisters Soledad Castro, Mary Margaret, and Concepcion Borja joined the teaching faculty.
Growth and Expansion
From the day it opened its doors, it was clear that Mount Carmel School was meeting a deep need for Catholic education in the community. However, as the school continued to enroll more and more students, enrollment expanded beyond the capacity of its facilities and supplies.
Again, Father Arnold and the school community improvised, this time with fundraising. In 1953, the school held a raffle in which farmers donated livestock, Mercedarian sisters donated life-size statues from the Kansas City regional house, and parents and students donated plants and home-made crafts. The fundraiser was a success, allowing the school to order textbooks, develop its curriculum, and build new classrooms. In 1955, under the leadership of Ton Francisco “Ton Kiko” Deleon Guerrero, the school’s facilities manager, the school opened new concrete classrooms just north of the old sugar mill.
In 1956, the school continued to expand as Sister Rosario Velasco and Father Raymond Demers, Superior of the Capuchins on Saipan, oversaw the development of what would become the first ever high school in the Northern Mariana Islands. Their vision came to fruition in school year 1957-1958 when a new high school principal, Sister Felisia Plaza, welcomed Mount Carmel’s first high school students, 41 Sophomores.
Under the tutelage of Mercedarian Sisters Mary Louise Balzarini and Mary Margaret Sneddon, the school’s first high school students would go on to join the first cohort of students to ever enroll in the school in the school’s first graduation. In 1960, then Deacon Tomas A. Camacho, the future Bishop of the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa, was the commencement speaker at the double graduation for the Senior Class of 1960 and 8th grade graduates, the future Senior Class of 1964.
It took great faith to open the first Catholic school and the first high school in the Northern Marianas, but that faith would be tested less than a decade after the school’s opening.
Typhoon Olive struck in 1960, damaging several classrooms and demolishing the school library. Undeterred, Father Arnold and the school community pulled together to open a new library and reading room in the Chalan Kanoa convent, where Home Economics and Art classes were also offered. By the end of the 1960-1961 school year, barely a year after Typhoon Olive, the school also opened its auditorium/gymnasium. Years later, the Constitution for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was signed in the auditorium/gymnasium, which continues to stand to this day.
A few years later, the school and the entire island were hit by one of the most damaging typhoons in the island’s recorded history. In 1966, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour, Typhoon Jean struck, taking with it much of Mount Carmel School. The roof and several pillars of the school were blown away. Some classrooms were completely leveled, and countless books and school supplies were swept away or destroyed.
The day after the typhoon, Father Arnold--the man who was, quite literally, the founding father of the school--stood before the devastation, with tears in his eyes. The school that he, teachers, parents, students, and the entire community had built with their bare hands was in ruins, but their faith was not.
The next day, Father Arnold was back at work. With his trademark laughter, he mobilized the school family to clean up the debris and encouraged everyone to move on. Just as the school family had built the school with their bare hands, so did they rebuild it, again with their bare hands. Within just a few weeks, the school was repaired, rebuilt, and rejuvenated.
As a testament to the faith and resolve of the school family, Father Arnold also facilitated the construction of the grotto shrine for Mother Mary in the northeast corner of the campus. Father Arnold worked with students and their parents who brought stones and boulders from across the island to build yet another icon at the school. Along with other school icons like the old sugar mill and the auditorium/gymnasium, the Mary shrine stands to this day as a concrete manifestation of the steadfast faith and tenacity of the school.
A Changing Church, A Changing School
The 1960s brought dramatic cultural and socio-economic change throughout the nation and throughout the world. The Catholic Church and Mount Carmel School were not isolated from those changes. For its part, the Church responded to those changes and initiated changes of its own at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). One of the major documents from the council, Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity), recognized that “modern conditions demand that [the laity’s] apostolate be broadened and intensified.” Another major council document, Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education), further recognized the role of the laity in Catholic schools, noting that priests, nuns, and the laity all share in the ministry of Catholic schools.
As a result of these changes in the broader Catholic Church, Mount Carmel School entered a new era of joint ministry between the religious and the laity, as priests and nuns worked side by side with lay professionals to provide Catholic education. In 1969, Felix Rabauliman became the first non-religious principal for the school since its founding, serving in that position until 1972. After Mr. Rabauliman, Sister Marie Pierre Martinez took over as principal, followed by Sister Bernadita Benavente, who was the principal from 1973 through 1978. Under Sister Bernadita, Jesus R. Sonoda served as vice principal from 1974 until 1978, when William Corey took over as vice principal.
While the laity shared more and more in the ministry of Catholic education, nuns continued to play an important role in the school, especially in leadership positions. From 1979 through 1981, Sister Regina Paulino was principal. In 1981, the school split the principal position into two, with Sister Mary Ignesia Sanchez as principal for the high school and Sister Mary Louise Balzarini as principal for the elementary school. Sister Maria Salas replaced Sister Ignesia as high school principal from 1982 through 1984. In 1984, Sister Catalina Saligumba took over as elementary school principal while Daniel McClain became the high school principal.
1985 marked an important turning point in the evolution of the school. On the heels of the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa being established in November of 1984, in January 1985, then Monsignor Tomas Aguon Camacho was ordained as the first Bishop of the Diocese. This meant that Mount Carmel School, operating under its own diocese as a diocesan school, no longer reported to the Diocese of Agana in Guam. As a result, the broader governance of the school changed. That year, Sister Mary Louise became the first superintendent of Catholic education in the diocese, while simultaneously serving as principal for the elementary and high schools.
Continuing the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council, Sister Mary Louise was followed by several lay school leaders who were seasoned educators in their own right. Isaac Calvo, a noted public school administrator, served as superintendent and school principal from 1986 through 1989. Victorino Cepeda, accomplished former principal of Marianas High School, become superintendent and principal from 1989 through 1991. Throughout the early 1990s, two more recognized educators, Carmen Taimanao and Margaret Lely, led the school as principal and vice principal respectively.
The increasing role of the laity in the school’s leadership was also matched by an increase in lay teachers. Throughout the 1990s, the school recruited numerous lay teachers from throughout the nation, all of whom enhanced the school’s college preparatory curriculum and motivated more and more AlumKnights to pursue post-secondary education after graduation. Teachers like Peter Crudo, Clifford Friedman, and Thomas Fendyan all raised the standards and expectations for students and inspired a generation of students to succeed in higher education.
A 21st Century Education for the New Millennium
As the third millennium and the school’s 50th anniversary approached, Mount Carmel School positioned itself to move forward into the new millennium with a 21st century education. Recognizing the increasingly interconnected nature of the global marketplace, the school took important steps to ensure that it was preparing her students for the new world that was emerging.
The first step was taken in 1995 when the school became incorporated, allowing it to form a board of directors, receive tax-exempt and non-profit status, and shift into an innovative president-principal model of school leadership. When the school was incorporated, Bishop Thomas invited Sister Angela Perez of the Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM) to serve as president from 1993 through 1996.
Under the leadership of Sister Angela, the school took another important step into the new millennium by successfully earning accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), securing a full six-year accreditation term, a rare feat any first year candidate in WASC earned.
Following Sister Angela’s tenure, Sister Kathleen Sarmiento, another RSM sister, served as president from 1996 through 2000, with Michael Miller and Tyler Bangert serving as elementary school principal and high school principal, respectively. Building on the work begun by Sister Angela, Sister Kathleen worked with the school’s board of directors to secure support and financing to open a new high school building in 1997. Designed by 1969 AlumKnight, Efrain Camacho, the new building featured state-of-the-art facilities, including new science and computer labs and a high-speed computer network infrastructure.
In 2000, the presidency was passed on to Margaret C. DelaCruz, a former student of the school and a retired Deputy Commissioner for the Public School System. With Todd Blahnik as the school principal, Mrs. DelaCruz worked closely with the board of directors to continue the facilities upgrades begun by Sister Kathleen. Under Mrs. DelaCruz’s leadership, the school obtained support and financing to open a new middle school in 2005 and a renovated elementary school in 2007. During that time, the school also upgraded its academic programs with a standards-based curriculum which led to substantial gains in student performance on national standardized tests.
In 2012, as the school turned 60, a new president arrived, one who was no stranger to the school, having served as a teacher, vice principal, development director, principal, drama adviser, and speech coach at various times between 1996 and 2012: 1991 AlumKnight, Galvin Deleon Guerrero. As a former member of Northern Marianas College’s Board of Regents and the Board of Education for the CNMI Public School System, Mr. Deleon Guerrero brought his vast experience and training in education to the table. Under his leadership, the school has further upgraded its programs by adopting the new National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools prepared by the National Catholic Educational Association. The school continues to move forward with innovative responses to a changing market and commitment to improving the quality of teaching and learning, while staying true to its mission to “educate the whole person to see with Christ’s eyes.”
The Power of Faith to Shape a Legacy
Who would have known that an old sugar mill that survived the bombings of a world war would start a legacy of faith, excellence, and success? Just as that building survived the ravages of war, who would have known that despite typhoons, cultural changes, and socio-economic challenges, the school would still be standing to this day? And who would have known that Father Arnold Bendowski’s vision, faith, and resiliency for a school would one day shape the future of this island? One governor, two lieutenant governors, numerous elected officials, and countless leaders in business, government, and community--they are all products of the school. As elected officials, doctors, attorneys, teachers, and business executives, the school’s AlumKnights stand as inspiring pillars in our community.
Many of the school’s graduates also earn admission into some of the world’s top educational institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), New York University, University of California Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Washington, and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Over the years, the school has also developed a diverse range of extra-curricular activities that have led to numerous theatrical productions and championships in Academic Challenge Bowl, the Attorney General’s Cup, Forensics (PGFC, MSFL, & NFL), Mock Trial, and We the People.
And to think, it all started with a prayer and a dream sixty years ago.
One wonders what the next sixty years have in store for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Whatever may lie ahead, the school’s history is a testament to the power of faith to shape a legacy.