There is no way to measure the impact Sr. Jean Spena had over three decades at St. Joseph Grade School in Toms River where she started both the physical education and athletic programs.

Actually there is which is why on Sunday, October 14 the gymnasium which is used by grade school students will be dedicated in her name and honor, a fitting tribute for a woman whose zest for fitness and competition never waned throughout her career.

Sr. Jean came to St. Joseph in 1971 as a 6th grade English teacher but after just one year she was asked to start a phys ed program which she did using the back of the cafeteria, parking lot and what was then “Angels Field” (where the church now stands).  At the same time she pursued a Bachelor Degree in Health and Physical Education at Glassboro State College (Rowan University).

Sister Jean with team
Sister Jean with team (St. Joseph Grade School)

In the early days of the program boys and girls took part in various team sports and gymnastics but Sr. Jean wanted more so she started an intramural basketball program with the help of parent volunteers and public school gymnasiums in Toms River.

In 1974 a competitive basketball program for 7th and 8th grade boys and girls was established with the teams from St. Joseph facing those from other Catholic schools.  Later the Spartans program expanded to include cross country and track and eventually the basketball team joined the Ocean County Intermediate Athletic League competing against area public schools.

1994 was a big year as returning 8th graders went to Ireland on a goodwill basketball trip with the help of funds raised through an annual spaghetti dinner which supported the program.  That year Sr. Jean’s long awaited dream of having a gym for the grade school became a reality thanks to the construction of a new church which allowed the old church to be converted into the present day gym.

Sr. Jean was a fiery competitor and force on the sidelines and produced numerous championships.  She taught PE, coached boys basketball and was the Athletic Director when she left St. Joe’s in 2000 to do charity work at a soup kitchen in Camden.  Today she is semi-retired but still substitutes from time to time.

The dedication of the Sr. Jean Gymnasium will take place on Sunday, October 14th at 2pm.  Those interested in attending should call the school at 732-349-2355.

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