PITTSFIELD -- Lillian Wilson was a Morningside girl who, despite growing up in the shadows of the St. Mary’s parish, was anything but Catholic.
"But our fate," she said, "is written in the stars. And I’ve just completed a journey of both joy and faith."
The St. Joseph graduation this past Sunday had a little extra emotion at its conclusion, when the school recognized Lillian Quinn, who after 40 years of serving as an English teacher and reading specialist, and academic dean for the past 10 years, made it official. This time, she said, the retirement is for real.
"I always thought that graduation should be about the graduates," said Quinn, who was talked out of retirement at age 65, and again 10 years ago when she was 70. "But this year turned out to be pretty emotional. I think there was way too much crying."
No doubt. When the diplomas had been handed out, Quinn was given her own moment in the sun, receiving roses from the student body, which also read a series of poems that helped cement what was already a close emotional bond.
Quinn also received an honorary St. Joe diploma, which she can now place next to the one she received in 1951 from Pittsfield High.
"I thought they might do something small," she said. "I thought I’d skate by."
Lillian married the late John Quinn, a St. Joe student and athlete who in later years would help coach the Crusaders’ football team. The couple put their six children into parochial school education and when Lillian converted to the Catholic church the handwriting on the wall that would tell her story became increasingly clear.
"I was teaching at [the former] Rice Elementary School," Quinn said. "The secretary at the school was Marian Rouler, who was very active at St. Mary’s Church. She knew there was a teaching opening at St. Joe and one thing led to another and I was asked if I wanted to be part of their staff.
"I had three children there at the time, and I asked them how they would feel if I was teaching at their school. The kids said they would love to have me here, so I went. I loved teaching at Rice, and it was a heart-wrenching decision."
Quinn said the staff consisted of the Sisters of St. Joseph and male teachers that included familiar names such as Tom Potter, Paul Procopio, Al Belanger and Tony Simonelli. This was still the mid-1970s, and the fabric that was the St. Joe community was both thick and strong.
But as the 1980s arrived, Quinn said, so did challenges. The Catholic church itself continued to run headlong into philosophical controversies, while locally the city watched wide-eyed as the Springfield diocese closed four churches. The St. Joe school population also began to drop.
"It was right around 1980 when we eliminated our dress code," Quinn said. "There was a fear even then that the school might close."
Quinn said she’s very much aware of the sometimes uneven Catholic landscape, but she remains both adamant about and an advocate for Catholic education.
"We have no standard level of classes at St. Joe," she said. "All our students are college ready when they graduate."
The Catholic church, she said, like many other groups and organizations, must be accountable for their actions.
"These are difficult times," Quinn said. "But we continue to give our students a foundation of faith. It’s something they will be able to draw from through good and difficult times."
Quinn said she hopes to golf a lot this summer and has plans to travel -- Ireland is one hopeful destination -- when possible. She’s on call to help at St. Joe when and if they need her. In the meantime, the 40-year ride has officially ended.
Still a Morningside resident, the little Wilson girl ended up leaving quite a legacy on Maplewood Avenue. Her prayers will forever be directed at all those who enriched her life. And know that the feelings are indeed mutual.
"On 9/11," Quinn said. "I couldn’t imagine having been anywhere else that morning other than St. Joe. We prayed all day."
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org