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A Pearl of Wisdom

By Colleen Dulle

Late one Thursday night, my best friend, Alyssa, and I flew down a quiet Highway 40, chatting about how much we love our jobs.  Granted, this was an easy thing to say: we’d just seen an excellent production of the critically-acclaimed Emmeline at Opera Theatre St. Louis for free, thanks to Alyssa’s work as one of the critics doing the acclaiming.

We’re both journalism interns this summer—Alyssa at St. Louis Magazine and myself at the St. Louis Review and Catholic St. Louis.  For two little girls who grew up dreaming of one day becoming writers, who made up stories about being related to orchestra members to justify attending so many musicals in high school, and for myself who discovered a deep love of theology in college, there are no better-suited internships than these.

“I get to see musicals and then write about them,” Alyssa told me. “I would want to be doing that anyway!”

I agreed.  Just the day before, I’d come into the Review office expecting a calm day of editing, but instead found myself dashing off with staff photographer Lisa Johnston to Overland for the funeral of a woman I’d never met, a third-order Carmelite who was so humble that she’d failed to mention to Lisa, her sister in Carmel, that she had pioneered Montessori education in St. Louis.

The woman’s name was Pearl Vanderwall, and talking with her son, Francis, on a couch at the luncheon following her interment, it was clear to me that she was a saint, a shining, vivacious soldier of Christ who risked her life for her God but was gentle and deeply loving as well.

Pearl Vanderwall

Villa di Maria was founded in 1967 by Pearl Vanderwall. Mrs. Vanderwall was a pupil of the late Dr. Maria Montessori in Sri Lanka.

Growing up in the mountains of Sri Lanka, Pearl traveled door-to-door evangelizing with the Legion of Mary, dangerous work for a young woman in a country where building political tensions ran along religious lines and Catholics were an ever-shrinking minority. She risked her life for this work, not hesitating in the face of violent rioting.

At 23, Pearl met Dr. Maria Montessori , who was under house arrest in Sri Lanka. She taught Pearl her famous model of holistic education with a Catholic touch, a lesson that altered Pearl’s life forever.

Pearl became a Catholic school teacher, but as Sri Lanka grew more dangerous, she and her family—a husband and son, Francis—desperately needed to escape. In May 1963 God answered with an aerogram from a Mr. and Mrs. Felling of St. Louis, requesting a Montessori teacher for their new school.

After a visa-obtaining process Francis described only as “hell,” the family surrendered all their possessions and boarded a ship to America, riding two levels below the water and arriving in the countryside of Creve Coeur in January “almost destitute.”

There, Pearl opened the first Association Montessori International-accredited school in St. Louis. (The Sisters of the Visitation had gained accreditation from the American Montessori Society for their own program about three months before.)

Pearl Vanderwall

Pearl Vanderwall working with her Villa di Maria students

Pearl’s little school for the Fellings struggled, though, so in 1967 Pearl opened her own school, Villa di Maria, which she named for the Blessed Mother.

The Villa, Francis said, was “far more Catholic than any pope you’ll find,” and Pearl taught the children there at minimal cost, taking no salary for herself.

She later founded the Montessori Training Center, where “there was something rich and abundant about everything she did, but in a very simple, humble, quiet way,” said Anjana Choudhuri, who studied under Pearl.

Pearl’s legacy will continue as Brianna Riley, another former student, founds Vanderwall Montessori, named in her honor.

Speaking with these people whose lives Pearl shaped, it gently dawned on me that there is nothing I want more this summer than to do this work, to receive these stories, poured from hearts that have known grace firsthand, and to give them to our little community, reminding us all that saints still walk this earth, and we tread in their paths toward God.

Colleen Dulle is an intern with the St. Louis Review and a journalism student at Loyola University in New Orleans. You can follow her on twitter @ColleenDulle