Sr. Joan Fitzgerald, BVM, poses for a picture with her great-grandnephew Nov. 1. Separate student-community celebrations honored her 50 years at Xavier. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Xavier College Preparatory’s Sr. Joan Fitzgerald, BVM, was assigned to the Phoenix all-girls school in 1962. She never left.

As a tribute to her 50 years of service — 38 as principal — Xavier named her a “woman of courage,” set up a scholarship program in Sr. Joan’s name for the school’s new international program, obtained an apostolic blessing from the pope and is selling a limited edition Sr. Joan angel ornament.

Students, alumni, faculty and family personally celebrated the Spanish-teacher-turned-principal’s leadership Nov. 1 in separate student-community tributes. Both let out a few convent secrets, such as the sisters’ adventures in cooking what used to be their annual Christmas goodies.

More than anything, though, the photo tributes, period skits and testimonies served as a way to formally — and humorously — recognize Xavier’s top Gator.

“Yes, one girl did ride her horse to school and tied it up by the tennis courts,” Sr. Joan said of her first years at Xavier.

Now students use cars, the light rail and city buses, although there was a time when complaints about student behavior threatened the role of public transportation in Xavier’s future. That is, until Sr. Joan “released her sleuthing talents,” said Noreen Reed, dean at Xavier.

The sisters boarded the bus with the troublemakers, armed only with a newspaper for disguise. One sister put down her newspaper, walked up and down the aisle to look each girl in the eye. She said nothing.

“Then Sr. Joan put down her newspaper and gave them the sweetest, warmest smile,” Reed told the student body gathered in the performing arts center. There has never been another complaint about student behavior on city transit.

“Thank you for all you do in public view and behind the scenes,” Reed said.

The latter is where Sr. Joan prefers to be. Kristen DeCabooter Foster, who graduated in 1990, called her “the ultimate servant leader.”

“Quietly, she is this community,” DeCabooter said, calling her former principal “the greatest gift God has given Xavier.”

Sr. Joan will quickly credit others such as alumni staff — there are 30 — and the faculty for Xavier’s success. A principal’s role, she said, is to make the teachers happy. She credited the pivotal parent role, too.

John Graham, a Xavier and Brophy parent who was labeled as Sr. Joan’s “loyal friend” for 41 years, played a large role in helping Xavier’s campus grow. He described Sr. Joan during the evening jubilee celebration as kind, compassionate, tough, loving and smart, with “an amazing sense of business skills.”

Who else could recruit such “incredible talent” to Xavier, expand a top-notch athletics program and debut now highly successful fundraising events, alumni said. Sr. Joan recalled an artist in her homeroom who created life-size cutouts of The Beatles, minus the faces. Students paid a quarter each to pose in the cutouts and get a Polaroid picture.

“With that money, they bought all of those palm trees that line the road into Xavier,” Sr. Joan said.

Enrollment stood at 431 when Sr. Joan first came to Xavier. Now it is triple that figure. Then, tuition was $14 per month. Her salary was $70 a month compared to lay staff who earned about $300.

Xavier’s campus consisted of one building — renamed Fitzgerald Hall in 2001 — and everyone took the same rigor of courses. Now, students challenge themselves with regular, honors, advanced placement and dual enrollment courses. Xavier was ranked the top Arizona high school for Advanced Placement success four years ago. The school offers more than 20 of the 30 available AP courses.

“It has a leadership group that strives not only to stay ahead of the curve, but set the bar,” said Kathleen Harris, who graduated in 1981. She said Sr. Joan measures her own success by the success of the girls who leave Xavier with a strong moral character.

A newly framed quote from Sr. Joan that will join the “Women of Courage” wall alongside people like Mother Teresa and Maya Angelou reads: “May our young women come to Xavier to learn and leave Xavier to serve.”