Women’s History Month: Sister Margery Kundar

Issue Date: 
March 31, 2008

Making a Difference


Sister Margery Kundar, principal of St. Benedict the Moor School in the Hill District, turned her childhood passion of playing school into her life’s work.

After years of making her sisters and neighborhood friends “play school,” Kundar took a major step toward becoming a teacher during her senior year at Mount Gallitzin High School in Baden, which was staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph nuns. Kundar decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph, an order that designates education as one of its many ministries.

It was a move that garnered some skepticism, Kundar remembered with a smile.

“I prayed about” entering the convent, she said. “My Dad said, ‘Margaret, I’ll give you six months.’”

Her father’s skepticism was understandable, Kundar acknowledged. “I went to all the proms, and I never wanted to miss or be left out of anything, but joining the order was something I felt I needed to consider.”

The decision was one that has served Kundar—and hundreds of her students—well. In 2006, she celebrated 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph. She began her teaching career in 1959 and taught at various schools throughout the Pittsburgh and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses. For the past 29 years, she has served as St. Benedict’s principal.

She attributes her commitment to service to her parents. “My parents were always helping others. They had a life of service, and they instilled that in us. The lesson was that you have a lot, so give what you can,” Kundar said.

Her parents, who went through the eighth grade, also were firm believers in education.

Kundar earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education at Carlow College in 1968. Four years later, she received her Master of Education degree, with a minor in reading and language arts, from the University of Pittsburgh. Kundar’s three sisters also are college graduates with professional careers.

In Kundar’s early teaching career, there were often 50 students in her classroom. Although Kundar has learned much on the job, she said Pitt also helped to prepare her for her career. She said she had many excellent professors.

In 1979, seven years after receiving her Pitt degree, Kundar became St. Benedict’s principal. “I wanted to work in a school where I felt I could continue a good quality education for students in a low-economic area. I knew it was an African American school, and I wanted to be there.”

Kundar said St. Benedict provides a structured and safe environment where students can learn and grow. The school employs six sisters as teachers, three full-time and three part-time, as well as nine lay teachers. While it is a Catholic school, St. Benedict does not consider religion in accepting students. “We accept everyone—85 percent of the students are of different denominations, only 15 percent are Catholic,” she said. “We’re here to teach the good news of Jesus that proclaims social justice and gospel values.”

Each school day, 12 buses travel to St. Benedict, filled with students from across the region, including the North Side, South Side, Hazelwood, East Liberty, and North Hills, among others. Students’ families pay tuition, but the school’s operational costs are heavily subsidized by the Extra Mile Education Foundation, the Pittsburgh Diocese, and St. Benedict the Moor Parish.

The Extra Mile foundation supports the education of urban children in six Pittsburgh parochial schools, including St. Benedict. The schools are located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and the students are primarily African American. About three-fourths of the 800 students at these schools qualify for the free- or reduced-price lunch program, and 60 percent of them live in single-family homes.

“Without the help of Extra Mile, the school would have to close,” Kundar said.

Ambrose Murray, Extra Mile executive director, said the schools are known for their quality of education, discipline, and mutual respect. Ninety-five percent of Extra Mile students attend school daily, and parent participation in education conferences is about 98 percent.

Murray calls Kundar an exceptional education leader. “She knows what to do and how to get it done. She has a little inclination towards perfection, near perfection. She wants what’s best so that these kids succeed.”
Like any other school, St. Benedict faces its share of problems. Murray said Kundar is an excellent problem solver. Kundar said she encourages teachers to keep an open line of communication with parents, calling when student’s grades are going down, but also when students are doing well.

“People don’t forget Margery,” Murray noted, recalling the time when a former student wrote her as he was finishing Temple Medical School in Philadelphia. ‘“I’m graduating,’ the student wrote, ‘and I’m graduating because of you.’”

Adam Iddriss, another former St. Benedict student, described Kundar “as a sincere and thoughtful educator.”

Iddriss, a 2006 Truman Scholar at Pitt and a Pitt graduate, is finishing his first year of medical school at Johns Hopkins University. “She has a passion for education and cares deeply about the students and the school. She is well respected by students and teachers,” he said.

Iddriss credits his success, in part, to Kundar’s influence. “The combination of Sister Margery and the environment that she cultivates helps to foster success at St. Benedict and beyond,” he said.

Kundar said that today’s students participate in more activities and are more knowledgeable than their predecessors. Their learning needs to be challenging, Kundar said, adding that the teacher is still the key to successful learning.

“If the teacher is enthusiastic and conveys that message to her students, they will be successful,” she said. “I tell my teachers, ‘Don’t discount anyone.’”

As principal, Kundar maintains structure for the students and the teachers. She also enlists the help of parents. “St. Benedict’s believes in getting the parents involved,” she said. “All are asked to volunteer, and they do so in the classroom, cafeteria, and library. We have a grandparent on the playground and, in the summer, parents help to get the school ready for the coming year.” Parents also are required to personally pick up students’ report cards.

Kundar aims to create a network, where St. Benedict’s students receive support from their families, the school’s teachers, religious guidance, and the community through Extra Mile.

“I feel good about walking into the school every day. And I’m truly happy when I see the students come back after graduation to tell us what they are doing.”