New Bedford school surprises beloved principal of 25 years

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — It looked like it would be just another day for Holy Family-Holy Name School principal Cecilia Felix; she had her schedule lined up, including a meeting with assistant superintendent of the Fall River Catholic Schools Dr. Donna Boyle. The only hiccup to her morning was the camera feed to the school’s front door was malfunctioning, and Felix was unable to see the comings and goings of those entering the school.

However, the meeting with Boyle was just a ruse to keep Felix in her office, while the “malfunctioning” feed was a glitch created by the school custodian, who disconnected the video line from the front door to her office to create the blackout. Led by Sister Muriel Lebeau, the entire student body and staff had been planning this moment for weeks — a surprise celebration of the 25 years Felix has been principal of HFHN.

“I’ve told so many lies, I’m going to have to go to Confession,” said Sister Muriel. “I really wanted to do a great surprise and celebration for her.”

The Furtado Quartet played its instruments to mask the sounds of the 291 students filing into the auditorium just feet away from Felix’s office. Additional guests included superintendent of the schools Dr. Michael Griffin, and Kristine Arsenault, secretary to New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who, on behalf of the mayor, was presenting Felix with a proclamation from the City of New Bedford.

Once the students were quietly seated, the final piece of the deception was put into play as the custodian asked Felix to come into the auditorium to check on something — later Felix said she assumed it was to check the paint color the custodian was using to paint the stage floor — and as she opened the door, she was greeted by members of the school’s Honor Society honor guard lining a decorated archway. 

“I really was [surprised]; I truly was. I was meeting with Dr. Boyle — she had called me a while ago — and we were discussing things,” said Felix, who was taken aback by seeing the entire student body in the auditorium.  

As she began to make her way into the room, the students and staff erupted into clapping and cheers; “It was overwhelming,” said Felix, as it started to sink in as to what was going on. “A couple of things started coming together when the little ones started saying, ‘Happy 25 years!’”

Once Felix was seated, Father Robert Powell led the opening prayer, and Sister Muriel spoke about how Felix brings “strength and dignity” to her job, showing the “true charm of being the principal — her religious spirit.”

Some students lined the stage, each bearing a letter to spell out the word “principal,” with each student reading what being a principal means, leading off each quality of character with the letter he or she was holding. After receiving the proclamation from Arsenault, Felix received a letter from then-apostolic administrator George W. Coleman, sending his heartfelt wishes and thanking Felix for her “outstanding service” as principal of HFHN.

During his speech, Griffin said that schools tend to reflect their leaders, “and we look at Holy Family-Holy Name School, and it’s a school of excellence,” he said. “It’s a school committed to academics and to your faith. That’s a reflection of the exceptional and outstanding leadership of Ms. Felix over these last 25 years.”

Every classroom asked its students to each donate a dollar, and each class presented gifts. Class representatives went up group-by-group; each voiced their thanks with prepared speeches and then presented a gift. Gifts ranged from donating money to St. Jude’s Hospital in Felix’s name to silver dollars hanging down when Felix opened the box.

The school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, whose representative stated that many of the parents had also been students and had Felix as their principal, and that “to many of us, you’re family,” also collected money and named a star in the sky for her, “so that you can shine like your students.”

A PowerPoint presentation entitled, “A Journey of Faith and Leadership,” was shown at the end of the celebration, highlighting Felix’ more than two decades as principal.

Once the festivities ended and Felix was able to catch her breath in her office, she told The Anchor that she had been turned down from a teaching position at HFHN when she first applied many years ago, eventually settling for a job as a middle school teacher — a position she held for 13 years. When she was hired to become HFHN’s principal, she recalled that during her first few days, she was “scared” and that “it was hard coming in because I was now my friends’ boss.”

That nervousness gave way to a personal philosophy that she maintains to this day: “I always said that if I did get the job, we would be a team,” said Felix. “I always envisioned Our Lord with His Apostles; He empowered His Apostles and disciples, and that’s how I wanted this school to be. It’s not my show. I guide the ship but it’s really Our Lord using the many talents of the people here.”

And even coming off of an hour-long celebration of her 25 years as principal, she turned the attention to the dedication of her staff, stating that it’s their devotion to the job that keeps HFHN running, and that though enrollment at Catholic schools has had its ups and downs, the availability of Catholic education will still be here because of the faith of teachers.

“Catholic education, in the time that I’ve been here, has changed,” said Felix. “Populations have changed; the priority of it [Catholic education] has changed. I think there’s a different order of it, but as long as I’m driving the ship, Catholic faith is my number one focus. I feel if you put God first, truly everything else will fall” into place.

She added, “I’m so happy that we’ve had this time together, and that they [students] see the value of our faith.”

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