Sending 11 of their 13 children to same Catholic high school worth the sacrifice,couple says

Standing in the foreground of the latest Mazalewski family portrait are mom Jackie and dad John. The siblings are: front row from left, Cecilia, Catherine, Anastasia and Bridget; middle row from left, Sarah (2024 graduate of St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, Del.), Bernadette, Jordan and Claire; back row from left, Joey, Daniel, Matt, James and Andrew. (OSV News photo/Don Blake, The Dialog)

by Mike Lang, OSV News

WILMINGTON, Del. (OSV News) — When Sarah Mazalewski received her diploma from St. Elizabeth High School June 3, her parents, John and Jackie, went through an experience that is familiar to many dads and moms.

With the last child leaving high school, the reality sinks in that they have hit a turning point in their lives.

What is pretty unique for the Mazalewskis is that this was their 13th high school graduation, the 11th at St. Elizabeth. And they were joined by 17 other family members inside the St. E Center.

The surest sign that a change was afoot came on May 31, when the final tuition payment to a Catholic school was deducted from their bank account. John and Jackie had been paying tuition for 31 years.

“It was definitely worth it,” John said of the decision to send the children to Catholic school. He and his wife both attended public school on Long Island but wanted a faith-based education for their offspring — Claire, Matt, Bridget, Catherine, Bernadette, Cecilia, Daniel, Andrew, James, Anastasia, Jordan, Joey and Sarah.

The older ones started at Holy Spirit School in New Castle, Delaware, which is now closed, before transferring to St. Anthony of Padua School in Wilmington.

Claire, the oldest, decided on St. Elizabeth, and a tradition was born. Some of that was out of necessity, John said.

“We couldn’t physically have done an elementary school and two different high schools,” he told The Dialog, newspaper of the Diocese of Wilmington. They came to love St. E’s for its “community feeling and the family-oriented feeling.”

Cecilia said Claire looked around and decided on St. Elizabeth.

“She had a great experience, and Matt followed the lead, and so on and so forth,” said Cecilia, a registered nurse in Florida who recently earned a master’s degree in science.

Like many of the Mazalewski children, Cecilia was an athlete for the Vikings. She played field hockey and basketball and was a member of the 2013 girls basketball state championship squad. In addition, there was almost always more than one Mazalewski enrolled. Catherine was a senior when Cecilia was a freshman, and as a senior, Andrew was a freshman.

She recalls her time at the school fondly.

“I kind of just liked the community and the family,” she said. “It was very family-driven, from the teachers to the classroom. You felt the support, whether it was on the sports field or in the classroom. I’m very appreciative of the four years that I did have there. It had a big impact on me and my career choices and the things that I’ve done in my life.”

Matt, who graduated in 2008, said St. Elizabeth did a good job creating a family culture, and his teachers were invested in the school and its culture, not just in teaching.

One longtime staffer said it was and remains an honor to her that parents would trust a school with their children.

“To have sent 11 to St. Elizabeth is something I regard as a gift,” said retired St. Elizabeth teacher and principal Shirley Bounds. “They will — and many of them have — gone on and done great things in that servant leader mode. The parents are wonderful models for all of those children. Their presence in church speaks volumes.”

Anastasia graduated in 2020, along with her cousin, Jordan, who the family raised as a daughter after her mother died. Anastasia said her friends thought it was crazy that their parents sent that many kids to the same school and couldn’t imagine paying that sort of tuition bill. One of the advantages of coming from that family is that she was never really anonymous.

“Everybody knew me,” she said. “They were like, ‘It’s little Maz.'”

Andrew, class of 2017, said while friends were amazed at the size of their family, it was all they ever knew.

“Twenty-five years of having 11 siblings, I just can’t imagine it any other way,” he said. “It’s just my normal. It was always nice to have someone in the hallways, someone to look up to or look down to. I didn’t find it weird at all.”

John is the youth minister and facilities manager at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, where he has worked for 23 years, and Jackie is a nurse at Christiana Care. They raised their clan in a three-bedroom townhouse near New Castle, with one room for the parents, one for the girls and the other for the boys. Space was at a premium, but other expenses made moving prohibitive, and John said taking the children out of Catholic school was never an option.

“That’s why we never bought a bigger house,” John said. “I’m not moving now. It does seem huge.”

Three of the children are living there now.

Cecilia recalled a closet that was full of St. Elizabeth athletic uniforms. “The St. E’s wear, you would just take anybody’s uniform. You’d fight over uniforms. ‘Those are my gym shorts.’ All the track suits and the sports warmups, we were fighting over whose was whose, wearing each other’s. Whatever was clean, whatever fit.”

The washing machine, she added, was running “all day, every day.”

“There was a lot of maroon in the house,” said Matt, who lives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and works in construction project management. Even the two children who didn’t attend St. Elizabeth went to schools that wore that color.

Andrew recalls never having a dull moment at the house. Finding a place to hide was difficult. There were triple bunk beds in each bedroom, and sometimes you just hopped in whatever one was empty. Lines for the shower were common.

“It was normal to me,” said Andrew, who works for First State Orthopaedics. “I didn’t have my own bedroom until I went off to college, and even then, I was sharing a much bigger room than what I had with my parents, but only with one other guy, so it felt like my own.”

Whether the next generation of Mazalewskis continue the maroon-and-gold tradition remains to be seen. Claire is expecting her fifth child, which will bring the number of grandchildren to 14. Cecilia recently welcomed her first child, a son, Luca, whom most of the family had not met until she returned to Wilmington for the graduation. Some of their grandchildren attend St. Peter Cathedral School.

Before returning to Wilmington, Cecilia thought about the emotions she might be feeling at the graduation.

“It’s emotional in a good way. You’re celebrating that my parents were able to put 11 of us through. We all have that in common. It is like the end of an era. Bittersweet feelings,” she said.

Anastasia, who just graduated from Salisbury University and will be going into education, said it’s hard to believe this generation has reached the end. “I think our legacy will be positive. We were all very involved in sports and clubs and everything,” she said.

Andrew said he hopes the family is remembered for their generosity and kindness.

“I feel like most of my family is pretty approachable, easygoing, friendly people,” he said. “The second thing is work ethic. I think my siblings are hard workers, whether that was in sports or in the classroom or whatever they were doing extracurricular-wise.

“St. E’s was good to us, and we like to think we were good to them. Definitely a good high school experience. I wouldn’t change it.”

Most of the children live close by. All of the Mazalewski children emphasized that John and Jackie deserve most of the credit for 11 graduations, along with managing a household that was a whirlwind of activity.

Bounds said John and Jackie’s influence is apparent. All of the children worked during summers, and some went on a service trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Jackie, she said, often works an overnight shift at Christiana Hospital so either she or John can be present for their children, and the family could be counted on to help with parish and school events.

“They are a faithful family who leads with that faith example,” Bounds said.

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