Villa Maria Elementary to close at end of academic year

img_7560By Mary Solberg | FaithLife

Erie’s Villa Maria Elementary School—a mainstay of Catholic education offered by the Sisters of St. Joseph since 1892—will close at the end of this academic year.

Sister Mary Herrmann, SSJ, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania, publicly announced the closure at an Oct. 4 news conference at the community’s motherhouse in Erie. She and other members of her leadership team met the previous two days with members of the board of trustees, with parents and school personnel. Some expressed deep sadness and frustration at the passing of an era.

In explaining the decision to close a school so close to the hearts of generations of sister-educators, Sister Mary stated, “The Sisters of St. Joseph always try to respond to current needs. We give up a particular ministry when that need can be met by others.”

Giving up the ministry of elementary education was not made lightly by the aging religious congregation. But with the establishment of the new Erie Catholic School System, announced by the Diocese of Erie last spring, the sisters felt confident that students had strong options for Catholic education. A recent pastoral planning study by the diocese indicated that current demographics do not support keeping all Erie area Catholic elementary schools open in the foreseeable future.

Villa Elementary is a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph, not a diocesan school, but sisters have collaborated over the years with the diocese by staffing Villa and nearly 40 other elementary and secondary schools.

“This is a proactive response that reflects our belief that together we are stronger and can more effectively fulfill the Gospel mandate of preaching and teaching God’s word,” Sister Mary said.

Bishop Lawrence Persico lauded the Sisters of St. Joseph for their longtime commitment to Catholic education.

“One thing I admire most about women religious is their commitment to following wherever the Spirit leads them,” the bishop said. “When they see a need, they meet it. In our diocese, they have addressed needs in health care, in Catholic education and in social ministry, always filling the gaps. But they also have the courage to move on when those needs are met by others.”

The school’s 12-member board of trustees expressed dismay Oct. 3 when it first learned of the school closure and the sisters’ decision to replace the board with a nine-member governing board of sisters. All former board members have been invited to be part of a transition team being created this year.

In a letter to parents and other members of the school community, former board of trustees members stated, “We fully understand that there is little that we can do to make you feel better about the SSJ’s decision— most of us have children at the school ourselves and are experiencing the same kind of disorientation and worry as you.”

Mary Gibson, president of the newly created Erie Catholic School System, personally understands the impact of a school closure. Last year, as principal of Erie’s now-closed St. Peter Cathedral School, she had to help students and parents say good-bye to a school they loved.

At the invitation of the SSJs, Gibson was on-hand at the parent meeting this week, as well as at the news conference, to extend support and offer help to families and students planning for the future.  Currently, the school’s enrollment stands at 431 in pre-school through eighth grade.

Gibson said there is more than enough room in all of the Catholic schools in the Erie area to accommodate students from Villa Elementary. She recommends that Villa Elementary students visit other schools and go over the pros and cons for their family situation.

“It’s a difficult time for parents,” Gibson said. “I would recommend that they be sympathetic and be open to their children’s concerns. Try to be as positive as possible about the process even though it’s tough, but especially because it’s tough.”

Damon Finazzo, principal of Villa Elementary, has met with students to confirm the closing. It’s better, he said, to all be “on the same page” and to come together during a difficult moment.

“We’re going to go one day at a time and we’re going to make every day awesome for our kids,” Finazzo said. “The kids are looking to us for direction. I just told them how awesome they are and how awesome we are. They were very receptive; they’re good kids.”

Change has been at the core of the Villa experience since the Sisters of St. Joseph first arrived in the Diocese of Erie to teach young women at St. Ann Academy in Corsica, Pa. In 1892, the SSJs established Villa Maria Academy for grades 1 through 12. In the late 1920s, the school became two entities: Villa Maria Elementary for grades 1 through 8, and Villa Maria Academy for grades 9 through 12.

The community founded Villa Maria College, which later merged with Gannon University in Erie. And in 2009, Villa Maria Academy successfully merged with Cathedral Prep, creating the Erie Catholic Preparatory School.


Marathoner, SSJs help immigrants


    Ajla Glavasevic and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwest Pennsylvania have teamed up for a cause close to their hearts.

At 27, Glavasevic finished the Erie Marathon Sept. 11 to help raise money for the new Sisters of St. Joseph Initiative for Immigration Fund. The goal is to collect $10,000 to finance legal assistance for the increasing number of immigrants in northwestern Pennsylvania.

At press time, Glavasevic—who is an attorney with ‎Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace in Sharon—raised $2,610 through the fundraising site

“My goal is to let immigrants know about the options available. Legal services do exist and there is a way that we can alleviate the financial stress and pressures,” Glavasevic says.


Ajla Glavasevic enjoyed a recent practice run along Presque Isle Bay. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

Glavasevic, who at age 6 immigrated to Erie with her family from Bosnia and Herzegovina, understands the plight of displaced people. The genocide and war in the former Yugoslavia had claimed at least six members of her extended family.

“This has been a driving force. I know the sacrifices that many of these people endure when they come into this country,” she says.

Growing up in Erie, Glavasevic got to know the Sisters of St. Joseph through her best friend, Meredith Pompeani, who is the daughter of Stephanie Hall, the religious community’s public relations director. Over the years, Glavasevic attended many events sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

They share a common vision of peace and social justice. So when Glavasevic approached Hall about doing a marathon, ideas started rolling.

Hall and the SSJ leadership team brainstormed about ways to combine the community’s peace and justice outreach with Glavasevic’s legal expertise and passion for immigrants.

“The passion Ajla has…oh my gosh,” Hall says. “She’s a go-getter.”


A group of family, friends and members of the Sisters of St. Joseph community surround Ajla Glavasevic, pictured standing seventh from left, at the Erie Marathon at Presque Isle State Park Sept. 11.                                                            (Contributed photo)

Glavasevic eaned her undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she attended as a Division I track and field captain and scholarship student. In May 2014, she earned her law degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Law. An elite athlete, she spent a year competing as a member of the USA women’s bobsled team, through which she met her fiancé, who is a member of Austria’s men’s bobsled team.

Since January 2016, she has practiced law with Jones, Gregg in the areas of immigration, domestic relations, criminal and employment law.

Erie, she says, is the fifth largest resettlement community in the nation, yet there are no attorneys in the region strictly devoted to practicing immigration law.

“I think immigration law will be growing 100 percent. How long that growth will last will depend on the policies and laws that are implemented in this country,” she says. “If we become more isolationist, there could be changes in deportation. If we become more open, we will see an influx of refugees.”


To donate to the Initiative for Immigration Fund, search Ajla at      

For those who want to send a contribution by mail, checks may be made payable to the Sisters of St. Joseph, earmarked for the Initiative for Immigration Fund, and mailed to:
Sisters of St. Joseph of
Northwestern Pennsylvania
5031 West Ridge Road, Erie, PA  16506


Ajla Glavasevic finished the Erie Marathon. (Photo by Stephanie Hall)

HOPE in the CROSS: Hungarian immigrant spreads peace through woodwork


People stop to pray nearly every day before the eight-foot wooden cross in front of Tashawna Harden’s house at 2307 Holland Street in Erie.

Two years ago, Harden’s cousin Tyshaun Thrower was shot and killed just north of Harden’s home in one of Erie’s most violence-prone neighborhoods. The cross stands as a magnet of hope, surrounded by flowers and stuffed animals left by people who knew the 20-year-old victim.

“You see people here anytime of the day or night. They talk to the cross just like they’re talking to Tyshaun. Or they pray,” Harden says. “The cross brings peace. It brings people together.”


Harden, 23, has come to love the cross in her front yard; it seems to keep her cousin close. But an unlikely consequence of the tragedy is that she and her extended family have developed a friendship with Erie resident Frank Juhasz, a Hungarian immigrant in his 70s, who made the cross and offered to place it at the murder scene.



Frank Juhasz stands with Tashawna Harden and a wooden cross he made to remember Tashawna’s cousin who was murdered in 2014. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

A member of Erie’s Son of God Prayer Group at Holy Rosary Church, Juhasz was moved to tears when he saw people gathered to pray at E. 23rd and Holland streets just days after Tyshaun’s murder on Oct. 24, 2014.

“It breaks your heart what’s happening in the city,” Juhasz says, standing next to Harden one recent summer afternoon. “When someone drives by the cross, they can’t help but think of Christ and that he died for us. We should flood this town with crosses.”

Juhasz and the Son of God Prayer Group have installed several pressure-treated crosses throughout Erie. Some of them stand at 20 feet; others are 18 feet and 14 feet. Juhasz made them all.

He spent his career rebuilding industrial machinery, having owned and operated the former Juhasz Industry in Erie. On a business trip to Lithuania in September 1993, he first became inspired by the powerful nature of the cross when he made a personal pilgrimage to the site known as the Hill of Crosses.

Years later, Juhasz started to build his own.

“When you see a cross, it represents God. It represents your faith,” Juhasz says. “I know Christ was crucified on one of those. It reminds people to get hate out of their heart. If you love Christ, then you have no hate. That young man would not have been killed if there was no hate.”

Besides the cross in front of the Harden home, there are others that encircle the neighborhood. An 18-footer is located across the street next to a playground. Another one is outside Missionary Baptist Church at E. 21st and Holland.



A large cross created by Frank Juhasz of Erie is displayed at the busy intersection of East Avenue and Buffalo Road in Erie.

About 18 months ago, Juhasz asked Parris Baker, pastor of Believers International Worship Center, if he could install a 20-foot cross—complete with a barbed wire crown of thorns—on the community’s currently vacant property at East Avenue and Buffalo Road.

Pastor Baker agreed. As program director of Gannon University’s Social Work Department, he and his congregation are searching for any and all ways to curb the violence that has plagued city streets. They are working closely with police, doing ride-alongs with patrolmen and conducting diversity training.

“The cross is a powerful symbol; it has a galvanizing effect and reminds people of the answer,” Pastor Baker says.



NFP, chastity directors appointed to posts


Kate Whiteford

Kate Whiteford

Cathy Dornisch

Cathy Dornisch

Two women have been appointed to lead Natural Family Planning and chastity education in the Diocese of Erie.

Kate Whiteford, formerly a religion and math teacher at St. Peter Cathedral School, Erie, has been named director of the Office of Chastity Education, while also serving as curriculum assistant to the Catholic Schools Office.

Cathy Dornisch, a native of St. Marys, has accepted the part-time position as coordinator for Natural Family Planning.

Both assumed their duties this past summer after the retirement of Barb and Ed Burkett, who taught NFP in the diocese the past 32 years. The Burketts oversaw both NFP programs and chastity education.

Upon the Burketts’ retirement in July, Bishop Lawrence Persico expressed his appreciation for their devotion to the development of NFP and chastity outreach.

“It is very clear that one thing that stands out is their determination and their love for this ministry. It shows not only in the way they teach, but how they live their lives,” the bishop said.

Whiteford, a parishioner of St. Peter Cathedral, comes to her new post with a strong background in education and spirituality.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Aquinas College in Tennessee, having majored in interdisciplinary studies. She later received her master’s in curriculum and instruction from Gannon University. For five years, she studied theology as a Dominican Sister.

Dornisch graduated from St. Vincent College, Latrobe, and earned her master’s in counseling from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

She and her husband, Andy, learned Natural Family Planning from the Burketts in 2001. Over the years, they have done public speaking on NFP, sexuality, chastity and contraception.

Cathy and Andy Dornisch have four children and are members of Sacred Heart Parish, St. Marys.

As director of chastity education, Whiteford will oversee a broad range of programs in parishes and schools. The office supports individuals and families in their efforts to live out God’s plan for a healthy, holy sexuality. Natural Family Planning is a key element of that outreach.

“This is an exciting time for the church,” Whiteford said. “There is so much beauty in the way God created our sexuality, and I am honored to be able to serve the church in this way.”

KNIGHTS on BIKES: Knights of Columbus take faith on the road

Knights on Bikes 1

Matt Goreczny, Chris Wolfgong and Robert Burneisen, left to right, are founding members of the Pennsylvania chapter of Knights on Bikes. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

Matt Goreczny, Chris Wolfgong and Robert Burneisen, left to right, are founding members of the Pennsylvania chapter of Knights on Bikes.


Don’t let the black leather biker vests fool you. Robert Burneisen, Matt Goreczny and Chris Wolfgong wear theirs for inspiration, not intimidation.

Emblazoned on the back of their motorcycle jackets is the bright yellow emblem of the Knights of Columbus, a longtime Catholic-based fraternal organization dedicated to charity and evangelization. The large cross stitched above the logo further cements the spirit of the riders.

“I feel that when I’m out there riding around with this jacket, this is who I am. I’m not a Hells Angel. We’re here to do good things, spread the word of Christ,” Wolfgong says.

The men are members of Knights of Columbus Council #385 in Oil City, and are the founding members of the Pennsylvania chapter of Knights on Bikes, an international organization dedicated to improving the image of bikers and promoting safety and Christian values.

Established in the U.S. in 2005, Knights on Bikes currently has chapters in 41 states. Besides the Diocese of Erie, only two other dioceses in Pennsylvania have an active Knights on Bikes group. Members must be Knights of Columbus who are willing to spread the Catholic faith under the motto: “In God we trust and ride.”

“In a way, we’re fishers of men,” says Goreczny, president of the Pennsylvania chapter. “It’s a visible sign.”

Wearing their faith so publicly isn’t anything new for Knights, who often don the colorful regalia of the organization at special Masses. Knights on Bikes simply uses motorcycles as another means by which to evangelize.

Goreczny’s bright yellow Honda Magna was spotted this past spring by a little boy traveling in a car with his father. Goreczny was wearing his Knights on Bikes vest.

“The dad told me that his son said, ‘Look, there’s a biker guy!’” Goreczny says. “The dad said, ‘Yeah, but he’s a good guy.’”

The Oil City-based group takes monthly rides together and is looking forward to visiting parishes in the Diocese of Erie. Wolfgong, who serves as president of the Erie Diocese chapter, hopes to organize service projects, while reinforcing the Knights’ dedication to charity, unity and fraternity.

“We’re trying to change the old, negative biker image to something a little more positive,” says Wolfgong, who at age 37 is among the youngest members of the Oil City Knights council.

A retired state police trooper, Burneisen, 53, is vice president of the Knights on Bikes’ Pennsylvania chapter and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus for 15 years. The organization, he says, carries moral weight.

“For me, it’s a lifestyle,” Burneisen says. “Even at work, you take on an ethical role in society. Being a Knight helps you be a Catholic role model.”

To learn more about Knights on Bikes in Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Erie, email Matt Goreczny at or call him at 814-657-3609.

Divine Spirit Congregation leaving Diocese of Erie

Sister Colette served as principal for 53 years

By Mary Solberg | FaithLife

   Sister Colette Hilow, CDS, became principal at St. James School in Erie in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles were preparing for their first U.S. tour.

This past June—more than a half-century later—Sister Colette wrapped up what the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Erie believes to be the longest tenure of any principal in its history.

“I don’t know what happened to all the years,” Sister Colette told FaithLife.

Her departure represents not only the closing chapter of her personal legacy at the east Erie school, but the end of six decades of the continuous presence of the Congregation of the Divine Spirit in the diocese. In June, Sister Colette and Sisters Martha Cadden and Mary Babik were the last members of their religious community to leave Erie.

They relocated to the House of Loreto, the motherhouse of the Congregation of the Divine Spirit in Canton, Ohio. In 2010, the order moved its motherhouse to Canton from Erie, where it was founded in 1956.

“I feel very sad that I had to leave St. James,” Sister Colette said. “I loved it very much and I loved the children and families.”

Sister cropped

Sister Colette Hilow, CDS, principal at St. James for 53 years, reads a book with Abby Ladaika, left, and Sophia Swanseger, both of whom will be second-graders at St. James School next year.

In addition to her 53 years as principal, Sister Colette had taught at the school from the time it was first founded in 1957. She and the other sisters are expected to be honored Oct. 2 for their years of service at the parish and school.

In a recent letter to the school community, Father James McCormick, pastor, announced “with a very heavy heart” the departure of the sisters.

“For the last 59 years, St. James School has been blessed with the presence, ministry and leadership of the Sisters of the Divine Spirit,” Father McCormick said, adding that Sister Colette “led by example, not by decree.”

He announced the appointment of Lisa Norton, a graduate of St. James and a 36-year veteran teacher at the school, as principal for the 2016-17 school year.

Norton said that Sister Colette ran “a tight ship” at St. James, but one in which students thrived both academically and spiritually. Most of the school’s faculty are alumni, and most of the current students come from families that have graduated from the school. It’s a testament to the positive influence of Sister Colette and the Divine Spirit community.

“There are multiple generations here. Sister Colette ran a very traditional school,” Norton said. “The faculty that are alumni wanted to come back and continue that for the children of the future.”

1_Divine Spirits

Sisters of the Congregation of the Divine Spirit are show in this undated photo in front of their original motherhouse on West Sixth Street in Erie.

One of the greatest lessons that Norton learned from Sister Colette was that all children are different and learn in different ways. As principal, Sister Colette was known for visiting classrooms unannounced, just to teach a mini lesson or two.

“Sometimes she would ask the children if they would read a poem or maybe she would give them a little math problem to do,” Norton said. “She visited Lourdes, so she would tell them about St. Bernadette or Fatima.”

Founded under the episcopate of Archbishop John Mark Gannon, the community mostly ministered as educators at St. James and Our Lady of Mount Carmel schools, in Erie, and one school in Ohio. It established religious education centers in Warren, Emporium and Coudersport, and its sisters worked in the chancery and at Gannon University.

“It’s a sad day for the Diocese of Erie because the Divine Spirit sisters have served us so long and so well over the years,” said Sister Nancy Fischer, SSJ, vicar for religious. “The diocese indeed will be different without their presence.”


FaithLife newspaper, Faith magazine capture CPA awards

Two of the top national awards at the June 4 Catholic Press Association meeting in St. Louis went to the Communications Office of the Diocese of Erie.

Mary Solberg, editor of FaithLife newspaper, won first place for individual excellence in the editor category.

Lynne Hsu, the Lansing, Mich.-based graphic artist who designs Faith magazine for the Diocese of Erie, won first place for individual excellence as graphic artist/designer.

The prestigious wins capped off an evening during which the Erie staff picked up 10 honors.

“It’s wonderful for our staff to be recognized,” said Anne-Marie Welsh, director of the Communications Office. “We are always happy for our readers. It’s an important indication they’re receiving top-quality news and features from their diocesan publications. And it inspires us to continue pushing ourselves.”

For the second year in a row, Bishop Lawrence Persico was a finalist for the Bishop John England Award for the Defense of Religious Freedom. He was cited for his leadership with the Zubik v. Burwell case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

In addition, Erie Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister garnered two CPA awards: First place in the category of Best Book by a Small Publisher for Two Dogs and a Parrot: What our animal friends can teach us about life, (BlueBridge); and second place for Best Blog by a Religious/Clergy for “From Where I Stand,” the blog she authors for National Catholic Reporter.

Catholic Press Association recognizes FaithLife newspaper, Faith magazine


  • Individual Excellence, Editor
    Mary Solberg, FaithLife newspaper
  • Individual Excellence, Graphic Artist/Designer
    Lynne Hsu, Faith magazine
  • Best Local Retail Campaign:  Faith magazine
    “Celebrating Sisters”
    Elizabeth Butterfield, Designer
    Anne-Marie Welsh, Concept/Copy Writer
  • Most Effective Use of Small Space:
    FaithLife newspaper

    “Clock Repair” ad for Nick’s Clock Repair
    Elizabeth Butterfield, Designer



  • Best Coverage of the World Meeting of
    Families: Faith magazine

Anne-Marie Welsh, Editor/Writer
Lynne Hsu, Designer
Matt Gambino and Amy Helmer, Writers

  • Best Coverage of the Year of Consecrated Life:
    Faith magazine
    The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, Anne-Marie Welsh, Writers
    Lynne Hsu, Designer
    Mark Fainstein, Photographer


  • Best Front Page (Broadsheet): FaithLife newspaper
    Rich Papalia, Graphic Designer
    Mary Solberg, Editor
  • Best Reporting on a Special
    Age Group:
    Faith magazine
    “Faith in Action,” Teen edition
    Anne-Marie Welsh, Editor/Writer
  • Best Use of Art or Graphics/
    Best Original Illustration:
    FaithLife newspaper
    “Bishop Logs Miles”
    David Solberg, Illustrator
    Rich Papalia, DesignerHONORABLE MENTION
  • Best News Writing on a Local
    or Regional Event:
    FaithLife newspaper

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Mary Solberg, Writer