I first saw Sister Lucy Cassarino in action in a school courtyard filled with dogs, cats, birds and a couple of nervous-looking hamsters.
She sprinkled holy water on the pets during the annual blessing of animals at Reedley’s St. La Salle Catholic School, where Cassarino is the principal.
Several hundred St. La Salle students had brought their pets to school, and the kids seemed delighted by the ceremony.
I was at St. La Salle to snap photos for the local newspaper. Over the next couple of years, I returned to cover spring carnivals, breakfasts with Santa Claus and patriotic salutes to veterans.
Cassarino always welcomed me – she understands the value of positive publicity. “Marketing has always been a strong point with me,” she said recently.
“It’s always important to let the people know what we’re doing.”
Over the last 18 years, Cassarino has done a lot.
She upgraded La Salle’s curriculum, introduced technology to classrooms and added music for students and staff development for teachers. She also opened a preschool on campus and guided the K-8 school through three successful accreditations.
Under her watch, enrollment has gone from 168 to 326 students – a significant increase that put the tuition-dependent school on a firmer financial foundation.
Cassarino probably saved Catholic education in southeast Fresno County and northern Tulare County – the area where St. La Salle gets most of its students.
In October, Cassarino celebrated her 50th anniversary as a nun. It’s a milestone all the more significant because family members in her native Sicily wondered whether she would make it past six months.
“They said that I had a strong personality and that I always got what I wanted because my father gave me everything,” she said.
Cassarino is the youngest of her parents’ five children. “I’m a baby boomer,” she said, adding that she liked school and did well in her studies but sometimes got into trouble for talking too much.
Loss came to her in the early teen years – her mother died when she was 13. “I felt an empty space in my heart,” Cassarino said.
Soon after, nuns came to her town to open a school. They became her friends, and she started thinking of one day joining them.
Here’s the quick version of how she got from her hometown of Modica, Sicily, to Reedley.
First stop: Rome, where she began her studies to become a nun with the Daughters of Divine Zeal. Her superiors sent her to the United States in 1973 because younger nuns were needed stateside. She went to college in the East, earned several degrees, and taught and served as a principal in Pennsylvania before arriving in Reedley.
The late Monsignor Francis Tasy of Reedley’s Catholic church urged her to relocate and become principal at St. La Salle.
“It was the last chance for the school, but I didn’t know it,” Cassarino said.
Her efforts at St. La Salle have not gone unnoticed. In 2004, the National Catholic Educational Association presented Cassarino with its Distinguished Principal’s Award for outstanding leadership.
Three qualities have contributed to her success, said Ed Todd, president of the St. La Salle school board and a former Dinuba city manager. She’s a good administrator, a strong spiritual leader and relates well to children, Todd said.
Said Cassarino: “I try to be fair and also show the students that God forgives us no matter what we do. But I teach them that they have to be responsible for their actions.”
She seems to balance that sense of accountability with a sense of humor – evidenced at one spring carnival when she plopped a straw hat over her whipple (similar to a veil) and circulated among the crowd.
“I enjoy being with the people, and the parents know they can count on the sisters,” Cassarino said.
That’s sisters – as in more than one. Two of the nine teachers at St. La Salle also are nuns: Sister Bernardita Nudalo from the Philippines (she’s known as Sister B) and Sister Mary Lilly Naduvila Veedu from India.
They live near the school in a convent, where on occasion Cassarino likes to cook Italian. “I make a very good tiramisu,” she said.
Asked to reflect on her service as a nun, Cassarino said there’s great freedom in doing what God intended for your life.
“God could have called someone who is brighter or more generous or had more talents,” she said. “It’s all in God’s mystery of life.”
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.