St. Peter School has a long and rich history of academic excellence where the seeds of faith began to sprout at its inception and continued to be nurtured to this day. St. Peter School is located in the heart of Merchantville, Camden County, New Jersey. It was founded in 1927 and continues today as a parish school with grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Plans for the construction of the school were inaugurated in 1926 by Father John B. Conway on church property on west side, or left, of the church façade and behind the former location of the rectory. With the cornerstone of the school laid in September, 1926 construction was completed in 1927. At that time the school consisted of two floors with four classrooms on the upper level and a basement hall which served as a cafeteria and an auditorium. Under the supervision of Mother Ernestine of the Sisters of St. Francis of Allegany, New York, the Franciscan sisters welcomed the first students on opening day in September 1927.
During Father Conway’s pastorate from 1918 to his death in 1944 St. Peter Parish grew from a small community parish to one of the largest suburban parishes in South Jersey. Father Conway was remembered for his generous and noble heart. On June 1, 1944 Fr. Michael A. Dalton’s pastorate began. During his six years at St. Peter both the parish and school continued to flourish. Due to the increasing enrollment, Fr. Dalton began the undertaking of creating a new school facility. However, due to his elevation in rank of Domestic Prelate with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor, he was transferred to Stone Harbor, New Jersey and replaced by Rev. John P. Fallon who arrived February 1, 1950.
Father Fallon purchased the property immediately to the east of the church from the Martin family to be used as the new rectory. This purchase facilitated the demolition of the prior rectory located in front of the school and provided space for the construction of the new parochial school which began in January 1951and completed in November 1951.
The new school dimensions were 103 feet by 76 feet and faced Maple Avenue. This new building consisted of two stories plus a basement. It was a fireproof building with reinforced concrete floors, concrete joists, steel stairways and a roof with two and one half inch concrete slabs. The exterior stone front façade matched the church’s façade. The yellow brick on the sides matched the rear school’s exterior appearance. Glass block windows and aluminum sashes and window panes were installed. The basement consisted of a modern kitchen, storerooms, a boiler room and a cafeteria with a seating capacity of 500. The modern oil burning heating system had zone controlled unit ventilators that could be operated in each classroom. The first floor of the school occupied the principal’s office, the nurse’s office, five classrooms, and lavatories. Six classrooms and a lavatory occupied the second floor. Each classroom was equipped with an oak paneled wardrobe closet, a teacher’s closet and book storage space. A public address system was included. The total cost of this state of the art construction was $335,000.
In January 1952 more than 1000 people, including many public and diocesan leaders, attended the dedication and corner stone laying ceremony of the new building. Right Reverend Monsignor Augustine T. Mozier, Vicar General of the Diocese of Camden, presided over the dedication services. During the ceremony he blessed the classrooms, the corridors and a large wooden crucifix which was suspended above the main entrance.
The Franciscan sisters continued to teach for approximately thirty- five years. Due to the increased enrollment of students in the school, the Sisters of St. Francis of Allegheny, New York realized that they were unable to staff adequately the ever growing school enrollment and withdrew from Merchantville at the end of 1961-62. It was at that time the Most Reverend Celestine J. Damiano, Archbishop-Bishop of Camden brought the Religious Teachers of Filippini, a Pontifical Instruction of Rome, with their American Motherhouse at Morristown, New Jersey to St. Peter School.
On August 27, 1962 principal and superior Sr. Ernestine Arcaneli arrived with eight sisters to begin the new school year. The sisters greeted the students on opening day, September 5, 1962 and immediately began acquainting the children with the life of St. Lucy Filippini and their work. For over 50 years under the leadership of various principals, these Religious Teachers Filippini have considered their ministry to “Go and Teach the Word of God” their primary duty at St. Peter School. Under their guidance, students at St. Peter School benefited from the Religious Teachers Filippini focus on a Christ- centered environment.
The Religious Teachers Filippini taught the word of God at St. Peter School until 2011 while planting and nurturing the seeds of faith under the guidance of its principals such as Sr. Mary DeAngelis, MPF, Sr. Louise Lauretti, MPF, Sr. Alice Ivanyo, MPF, and Sr. Elizabeth Calello, MPF. As a former teacher with over twenty five years experience at St. Peter School, Mrs. Maureen Lesniak, was the first non-religious principal at the school until 2011.
In 2012, the religious Congregation of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary (MDPVM) from Aguascalientes, Mexico arrived to St. Peter Parishand served the school through 2016.
Over the years, a library, media room, kindergarten room, faculty room and nurse’s office were built in the school basement. In the summer of 2008 air conditioning units were installed in all classrooms. In the fall of 2010 a Fine Arts Room for music and arts education was dedicated in the basement of the school.
In the late 1990s under the guidance of Monsignor Charles Barth and Principal Alice Ivanyo, MPF, St. Peter School embarked on the technological journey by adding computers into the curriculum along with classroom computers and a fully equipped computer lab to meet the needs of the information age of the new millennium. Today, the students benefit from updated computers, printers, scanners, white boards, and other audio visual equipment to enhance the instruction of the school’s curriculum.
For over 85 years St. Peter School continues to stress academic success and is blessed to have benefited from the vision of various pastors such as Father Conway, Father Anthony Manuppella and Monsignor Fallon. Monsignor Fallon’s famous saying “Be as generous to God as God has been generous to you” is still remembered today by many parishioners and former students.
Adapted from Keeping the Faith for 100 Years: A History of St. Peter Church, Merchantville, NJ By Maureen McLoone