From her first years as a cloistered nun through her tenure as headmistress at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich and Executive Director of the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, Sister Joan Magnetti, RSCJ, has been committed to quality Catholic education for all students.
For more than five decades, she has followed the vision of her order’s foundress, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who formed the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800 to make the love of God known through the Sacred Heart and to restore Christian life in the aftermath of the French Revolution by educating rich young women…and poor young women.
Sister Magnetti often recalled the words of St. Madeleine Sophie, who said, “You educate a woman, you educate a family; you educate a family and you educate a civilization.”
After ten years, she is retiring as Executive Director of The Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, which serves more than 925 children, many of whom are from the poorest families in the county.
Sister Magnetti has been recognized nationally for her commitment to Catholic education, her leadership, her innovation and her compelling desire to work with inner-city children. As she puts it, “Every kid deserves a good education, and it shouldn’t have to depend on a wallet.”
Joan Magnetti is, by her admission, a “Jersey girl,” who grew up in West Englewood and attended public school until fifth grade and later Notre Dame Academy. She went to Manhattanville College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1965. A product of the 60s, she was influenced in large part by Vatican II and John F. Kennedy’s presidency and believed that young people could make a difference. It is a belief she has shared with generations of students throughout her career.
She became quite impressed with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart at Manhattanville, almost all of whom had PhDs. “They were an extraordinary group of women,” she says. “There was a kind of joyfulness about them, and they had a very large world view. They cared about us as students, and the charity and love they showed us made an impression.”
After graduating from Manhattanville, she entered the Society of the Sacred Heart, an international group of 3,000 religious women who seek to reveal the love of God through education.
“I knew education was their mission and the radicality of giving your life to God; I never thought of doing it differently,” she says. “I love our religious order. I grew into a relationship with God and realized his love for me and wanted to serve him. I never thought about a career. It was all about God.”
During those years, the sisters lived a cloistered life with five hours of prayer a day, which included Mass, the Divine Office chanted in Latin, meditation and meals in silence.
“Everything was very regimented,” she recalls. “You couldn’t even go home if your parents died or there was a graduation.”
Sister always had a close relationship with her brother Donald, who entered the Jesuits and received his doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Johns Hopkins University. He taught the Old Testament and Semitic languages at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary before receiving his law degree and becoming a professor of torts and trusts at Fordham University School of Law.
With two children in religious orders, their parents Margaret and Gerald Magnetti would often joke, “You can’t say we didn’t do our part to support zero population growth.”
After Sister Joan finished her novitiate in 1968, she received her master’s degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary. She went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, where she taught history and religion and ran one of the houses on campus in addition to overseeing a CCD program for 450 children.
She later became headmistress at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, where she stayed for 13 years before returning to Greenwich as headmistress.
“I had a lot of work to do when I got there,” she recalls. “There was a prejudice about Catholic schools not being academically strong…and it was a convent school.”
There were only 295 girls in preschool to 12th grade and she faced fierce competition for enrollment from other private schools in the area.
“We worked hard and made it clear what our mission was. We were proud of being an allgirls Catholic school,” she said. “When I left, we had 777 kids, a $20 million endowment and a new middle school, science building and library. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.”
After 19 years, she retired in 2009, and shortly afterward, Bishop William Lori called her. He knew about her commitment to inner-city education and recruited her for the new position of Executive Director for Catholic schools in Bridgeport. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano later created the model of one school on four campuses.
The Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, which comprises St. Andrew, St. Ann, St. Augustine and St. Raphael, recently received its 10-year accreditation. Sister said it has had a balanced budget for the past three years and an enrollment of more than 925 students.
With 80 percent of the students coming from homes near or below poverty level, the Academy awards $2 million in financial aid annually. Seventy percent of students are at or above the national norm in reading and math, and the high school graduation rate is 100 percent (compared with 63 percent for the Bridgeport public schools), and 99 percent go on to college.
“I have always wanted things not just to survive, but to thrive,” she says. “So many schools throughout the country have closed, and I am thrilled with all that has gone on—we are thriving.”
She also points out that the Academy produces better results than the public schools with fewer resources. “I am very proud of our achievements and of our board,” she says. “I have never had such an incredible board in my career, and the bishop is one of our biggest supporters.”
Board Chair Bradford Evans, a senior advisor in Morgan Stanley’s investment banking division who has worked closely with Sister for the past ten years, says, “Besides being an outstanding leader and educator, Joan has been a wonderful colleague, mentor and friend who brings great warmth and wit to everything she does.”
Sister Magnetti, who lives in Bedford, N.Y., with several Sacred Heart sisters and her golden retriever Maddy, will stay on temporarily as coordinator of major gifts to assist incoming Executive Director Angela C. Pohlen.
“Catholic education is so essential—and not just for Roman Catholics,” Sister says, noting that 40 percent of the students are non-Catholic. “Our goal has always been to create an environment where kids can learn and find themselves and build strong character and have a sense that no matter what, they are loved.”
Looking back on her career, Sister recalls a favorite saying of St. Madeleine Sophie, who always told her colleagues that she would have founded the order all over again…for the sake of one child.
That “one child” has motivated Sister Joan throughout her 50 years in education. She has seen successes that can be measured in small ways and in large ways, and recently shared the comment of a girl graduating from St. Augustine’s, who wrote in her yearbook, “The most important thing I learned here is that God is always there to help me.”
And that, to Sister, was a monumental success.
By Joe Pisani