From the Heart
Country Day School of the Sacred Heart shapes young women into compassionate leaders who love to learn and strive to make a difference in the world
by Bill Donahue

“We must remember that each one of our children is destined for a mission in life. Neither we nor they can know what it is, but we must know and make them believe that each is bound to find out what it is. There is some special work for God which will remain undone unless she does it.”

So wrote Janet Erskine Stuart, RSCJ, one of the prominent educators of the Religious of the Sacred Heart who envisioned a nurturing educational model for shaping young learners into compassionate leaders. Although Mother Stuart passed away 100 years ago, her influence is strongly felt even today at schools such as Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, which this fall is culminating the centenary celebration of Mother Stuart’s life.

Located on 16 pristine acres in Bryn Mawr, Country Day School of the Sacred Heart (CDSSH) is an independent Catholic, college preparatory school for girls, from prekindergarten through grade 12. Currently, 325 students from more than 55 ZIP codes throughout Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties attend CDSSH. Through intimate class sizes led by gifted educators, as well as a “global campus” stemming from its membership in the Network of Sacred Heart Schools, the young women enrolled here are effectively pursuing what Mother Stuart once described as their “special work.”

Founded in 1865 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart and lay owned and governed since 1969, CDSSH has established a challenging intellectual environment in which students can develop a love of God and cultivate compassion for others. In addition, CDSSH educators encourage students to take risks, reach beyond their comfort level and expect more from themselves as lifelong learners and responsive leaders, according to Sister Matthew Anita MacDonald, head of school.

“We try to help each student identify what her special gift is and what she has to contribute to the world, and we support her in making those contributions,” she says. “It’s a culture of mutual enrichment, where students come to recognize that everyone around them has a gift to offer. We’re cultivating the whole spirit of compassion in which students learn to appreciate others’ gifts as well as their own.”

Like all Sacred Heart schools, CDSSH is committed to following the example envisioned 200 years ago by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart. As such, CDSSH educates each student in her quest to achieve five specific goals: a personal and active faith in God; a deep respect for intellectual values; a social awareness which impels to action; the building of a community as a Christian value; and personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.

Specifically, CDSSH aims to nurture the strengths and interests of each student so she can excel in the next phase of her education. Students benefit from a rigorous academic curriculum in a variety of subject matters—from science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM) to the humanities—as well as ample after-school activities, ranging from athletics to the creative arts. Unsurprisingly, 100 percent of CDSSH students matriculate to institutions of higher learning, and more than 95 percent of CDSSH alumna complete their college education within four years.  

The school’s progressive and comprehensive educational approach includes an integrated humanities curriculum that begins as early as middle school. By having educators collaborate in teaching subjects such as literature, history, music and art of a particular period concurrently, students can absorb the material “as one experience” and hone the skill of “making connections,” according to Sister MacDonald.

“It’s a cross-pollination of courses that fit together as a whole,” she says. “This way, students can understand what was happening to a specific culture at a specific time in the world’s history. They will understand the influences behind, for example, why the Greeks wrote what they wrote when they did.”

A Sacred Heart education provides benefits even more valuable than college preparedness, as CDSSH parent Joyce Dugan can happily attest. Each of Dugan’s daughters—Celine, a rising senior; and Samantha, a 2011 CDSSH graduate now in her senior year at the University of Delaware—has thrived at CDSSH, each in her own unique way.

“Celine is involved in many activities; mostly it’s athletics—golf, basketball, lacrosse—but she is also involved in the drama club and other activities,” she says. “Then there is Samantha, who is thriving beautifully [in college] and wants to be an English teacher. She knew right out of Sacred Heart exactly what she wanted to do, and it was one of Sacred Heart’s teachers that led her in this direction. To this day, she is still in communication with some of her teachers here; it’s such a strong bond.

“My girls have both thrived because of the support and love that they got here, and the knowledge that everyone at Sacred Heart has your back,” she continues. “They have attained a great sense of who they are and what they can achieve. From what I’ve heard, that’s not something that is common in other schools.”

In other words, CDSSH fosters “the personal growth of students in this challenging world,” says Theresa McCoy, director of the upper school. This includes everything from an iPad program for the upper school, a hands-on robotics program for the lower school and multiple opportunities to explore the world, both in the classroom and through organized trips to countries such as France, Greece, Italy and Spain. Students who have an interest in studying abroad can do so at other Sacred Heart schools, and they can also interact with students from network schools in other states or other countries who come to CDSSH through an exchange program.

“We’re just one school in Bryn Mawr, but being part of the Sacred Heart network enables us to give a much broader education to the student,” says Sister MacDonald. “Students have the opportunity to visit other network schools for two to three weeks—San Francisco, Omaha, New Orleans, even overseas to Melbourne, Australia, and Perthshire, Scotland—and they all come back excited and engaged. We also have students from other Sacred Heart schools come here. You might call us a small school with an international campus.”

Such exposure inspires students to explore and share their gifts with others long after graduation day. For example, Joyce Dugan’s eldest daughter, Samantha, traveled to South Africa last year to teach underprivileged children. Despite less than ideal conditions, Samantha remembers it as “an amazing experience” rooted in a deep-seated obligation to help others, according to Joyce.

“There’s such a wonderful sense of family here,” says Joyce, who belongs to the CDSSH Mothers’ Association and is involved in other aspects of the school community. “My daughter Celine is in her last year [at CDSSH] now, and I could almost cry. I wanted to be involved here from day one. Initially I was involved because I wanted to know what was going on in my daughters’ lives, but as they grew I remained involved for selfish reasons, because you’re surrounded by outstanding people who are all on common ground.

“I know my daughters have made some true friendships here,” she continues. “They will always remember it as a comfortable, safe, secure and nurturing environment. For my part, I’ve met such fabulous people who will be lifelong friends. As parents, we’re all here and involved with the school for the same reason: because we want the best for our daughters.”

Country Day School of the Sacred Heart
480 S. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
610-527-3915 |

Upcoming Open House Events
Upper School Open House
Saturday, October 18
12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Ninth Grade Scholarship and Entrance Exam
Saturday, October 18
8:45 a.m. to Noon
All School Open House
Grades Pre-K through 12
Tuesday, October 28
9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

Photograph by Jody Robinson