For three decades, Sister Joyce Volpini stood every morning at the top of the stairs to Saint Jerome Catholic School in Hyattsville to welcome students.
“That was her pleasure, to greet the children every morning,” said Sister Geri McPhee, a fellow nun who was Volpini’s best friend at the Hyattsville convent. “She remembered everyone.”
Former students, teachers and colleagues are expected to come to Saint Jerome Parish, 5205 43rd Ave. in Hyattsville at 1 p.m. Saturday for a memorial mass for Volpini, who died Sunday after a resurgence of cancer at the age of 66.
Serving as principal for the private religious school from 1979 to 2009, Volpini counseled the students, teachers and parents through generations with a calm, caring reserve, mourners recalled.
“She was just a tremendous listener,” said McPhee, who worked alongside Volpini for 47 years when they were both assigned by the diocese to the school and church. “She worked very hard to have all her ducks in a row and she was always one step ahead.”
Born to an Irish mother and Italian father, Volpini became a nun when she turned 18, McPhee said. She remained close to her family, who live in Baltimore County, but friends say her life was the school.
“She got along with the teachers so easily,” said Rosie Kucharski, who taught eighth grade at the school for 16 years when Volpini was principal.
During her 30 years as principal, staff turnover was rare at the school, which taught students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The staff stayed primarily because of the support Volpini gave the instructors, Kucharski said.
“She understood. You could just go to her office, plop down and tell her anything,” Kucharski said.
In her office, teachers and students were sure to see a dog. Volpini raised rescue dogs at the school, keeping them contained with a baby gate in the doorway.
“She always had them grow up with the kids,” said McPhee, who is now caring for Volpini’s latest dog, a golden Labrador named Maddy.
Another major passion for Volpini was sports. In addition to coaching softball and soccer when needed, Volpini donned purple jerseys to watch the Baltimore Ravens, and travelled with Mcphee to Cooperstown, N.Y. in 2007 to celebrate Baltimore Orioles player Cal Ripken Jr.’s induction into the baseball hall of fame. March Madness at the school was a sight, as Volpini encouraged students to wear team colors in place of their normal school uniforms — if they brought in donations for charity.
Volpini was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007, and retired as principal in 2009, but stayed on at St. Jerome’s as a counselor. She retired at the end of the 2010 school year to care for her mother, McPhee said.
Friends said that Volpini’s strength was the little details that made the school experience special. In addition to handing out diplomas at the school’s annual graduation, Volpini also gave the students roses, which she insisted they take back to their mothers in the crowd.
The school, now known as St. Jerome Academy, will not be the same, Kucharski said.
“Sister Joyce was St. Jerome’s,” she said.