Giselle Garcia started school this year at Holy Family Catholic School in Orange.

When her mother, Veva Gomez, picked her up after school, the 6-year-old couldn’t stop talking about the nursery school she attended from age 2 ½ through kindergarten this spring.

“I think she just fell in love with how the sisters are so caring with the kids,” Gomez said of Santa Clara Day Nursery School in Santa Ana – a beloved but under-the-radar private Catholic school that finds itself in an unusual position as the new academic year begins Sept. 5.

Run by the Poor Clare Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order founded in Mexico more than a century ago during widespread persecution of Christians, Santa Clara Day Nursery School has enjoyed a lengthy waiting list during its nearly 60 years of operation.

But COVID-19, as it has with so many things, changed that.

Although the nursery school was able to re-open six months after the pandemic began in March 2020, enrollment this fall is at around 60 students – far below its 100-child capacity.

For the first time, the sisters who run Santa Clara Day Nursery School have visited area churches with fliers and have put up a banner outside the school — at Hazard Avenue and Newhope Street — to promote the enrollment openings and a curriculum of English, math, science, social skills, introduction to Spanish and Catholicism.

Pre-COVID, a waiting list of 30 to 40 students was typical, said Sr. Hena Andrade, the school’s program director. She and Sr. Yenory Zuniga, regional superior at the school’s adjacent convent, have gotten a big boost in their efforts thanks to a chance encounter with retired Orange County Third District Supervisor Bill Campbell.

Campbell, who also served as a state assemblymen and Republican leader of the state assembly, is a lifelong Catholic and graduate of Loyola Marymount University. He and his wife, Mary, are parishioners at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Orange.

In late May, after a 5 p.m. Saturday Mass, Campbell and his wife went to grab a bite at Tutto Fresco in Orange.

As they were leaving, they noticed a dozen or so sisters dressed in grey and white habits standing in line scouring the menu boards at the Italian restaurant.

The sisters were enjoying a rare night out courtesy of some nursery school parents who were thanking them for another successful May Day festival, a two-day event that is the school’s major annual  fundraiser.

Campbell turned to Mary and said, “Maybe we ought to buy them dinner.” “That’s a great idea!” she replied.

He did, and he learned about the Poor Claire Missionary Sisters, who opened Santa Clara Day Nursery School in 1965 for children ages 2 ½ to 6.

Campbell told the sisters he would do what he could to spread the word about the school, which has five main classrooms, playground equipment and a large, park-like yard filled with fruit trees. The sisters invited him and his wife back for a tour in July and a meal.

“I said to myself, ‘Lord, this is something I can do,’” said Campbell, 81. “It’s not too big of a project for me, it’s not too small — it’s just right. The Lord has drawn me to do something that allows me to use my business experience and contacts to help the sisters be missionaries for Christ.”

Added Campbell: “The sisters have done a marvelous job and the school is spotless. You’d think it was brand new.”

Gomez’ son, Aiden, who just turned 5, begins kindergarten this September at Santa Clara Day Nursery School — as does her niece, Penelope. Veva grew up near the school and in September will become a member of a recently formed group of student mothers, Marian Daughters, whose members meet twice a month.

“I wouldn’t feel safe leaving my kids anywhere else except with my mom,” Gomez said.

The Poor Clare Missionary Sisters, who now total some 700 members in 14 countries, officially were established in 1951. Their founder is Blessed Mother Maria Ines Teresa, who entered the Monastery of Poor Clare nuns in Los Angeles in 1929 after traveling by train from her hometown of Ixtlán del Río in the state of Nayarit, Mexico.

The 16 sisters currently living in the Santa Ana convent take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and their community is characterized by joyfulness — which is the attitude they maintain with students of their preschool, which is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Tuition is $145 per week.

“In this place,” Sr. Yenory said, “we don’t just teach — we see it as a mission. We see Christ in each child, and we don’t see them as a group, but as individuals. And we teach them to have values and respect each other.”

For more information about Santa Clara Day Nursery School, call (714) 554-8850 or email [email protected]. The website is under construction.