Retiring superintendent amazed at schools' results

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

George Henry has spent 63 of his 69 years at a Catholic school as a student, teacher or administrator.

Henry will retire as superintendent of Catholic education at the end of the archdiocese's fiscal year on June 30, 2014. In 1995, Henry was named the first lay superintendent of the archdiocese. He was associate superintendent of Catholic elementary schools for 17 years and principal of Bishop Healy Elementary School in North St. Louis, principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School in Crystal City and a teacher at Sacred Heart. Henry was the first lay principal of a Catholic elementary school in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

He saw what Catholic education did for him and what it could do for others. Integrating knowledge and faith can form children to be "in a relationship and in the image of Jesus Christ" as well as "contributors to our society and our Church," he said.

The Christ Prince of Peace parishioner considers it a privilege to be a Catholic educator. His grandchildren now attend Catholic schools.

Challenges

It's "miraculous" how Catholic education has overcome challenges, he said. "And it remains a challenge today. We receive no financial help from the government to provide this school system, and yet people are willing to sacrifice and pay additional money beyond their taxes to send their children to Catholic schools. People are willing to invest money in their parish and archdiocese to further help fund this enterprise. People are willing to volunteer enormous amounts of their time in helping promote Catholic schools, teachers are willing to work at reduced salaries in order to help sustain the mission of Catholic schools and pastors are willing to take on significant responsibilities at their parish in order to operate Catholic schools."

About 99 percent of Catholic school students graduate, and 95 percent go to college. They take four or five more units of college-level courses than public school students. "Tests show our students are performing well beyond national averages. It happens at less cost than public schools and in many cases with better results," he said.

St. Louis tradition

The St. Louis Archdiocese's tradition of quality Catholic schools occurred with a stability of leadership, he said, including bishops who have stressed its importance.

Henry has worked under five archbishops -- three as superintendent. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson "is a classic example of an archbishop who has made Catholic education a number-one priority, further energizing the Catholic community to continue that tradition," Henry said.

Archbishop Carlson said, "I am grateful to George for his many years of commendable service to the archdiocese. With Catholic education as my top priority, it is essential that we find someone with an equal passion for Catholic education that will embrace the opportunities in our community and lead with the same enthusiasm. It is important that we continue to ensure every Catholic School in the Archdiocese of St. Louis is Alive in Christ."

The percentage of students who attend Catholic schools in the archdiocese is three times higher than the national average. The 38th largest diocese in the country, St. Louis is the seventh largest Catholic school system in the country.

The last 50 years has seen only three superintendents -- Bishop John Leibrecht, Sister Mary Ann Eckhoff, SSND, and Henry.

Call of the laity

When he began teaching in 1965, 90 percent of teachers in Catholic schools were from religious communities. Now, the laity has continued the tradition established by the religious men and women, he said, "and we will forever be indebted to them for their contributions."

"That transition has been significant because it has been the call of the laity to continue and preserve the Catholic identity and nature of those schools that are at the heart of why they exist. They've carried on the academic and instructional program that competes with any school system in this country."

The laypeople have proven they have the character and spiritual development to support the mission of Catholic education, Henry said. It brought a challenge to pay salaries and benefits comparable to their training and public education, he added.

"These challenges remain -- having teachers and leaders with the proper training and formation to continue this tradition. Our schools must remain authentically Catholic and have a prevailing Catholic identity."

Almost $350 million will be contributed this year to sustain 147 elementary and secondary schools, Henry noted. The cost must not get to the point where it is beyond the means of parents and parishes to sustain it, he said.

"We look over our history, and challenges have always been a part of our legacy," Henry said. "It's all part of the miracle of Catholic education."

IN HIS OWN WORDS

George Henry, superintendent of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, responded to a few questions about his work and life. Gathering with children from St. Louis the King School at the Cathedral Basilica Parish recently, he introduced himself as the superintendent of schools. The students referred to him as the "superman" of schools or "superhero." Here then are some super answers.

1. What was your most memorable moment as superintendent? Receiving Holy Communion from and getting to meet Pope John Paul II.

2. What was the happiest/most fun time as superintendent? The most satisfying part of my job is getting to know and work with some truly outstanding individuals both in the Catholic Church and the St. Louis community.

3. What has been the biggest success during your time as superintendent? Relocating and building the new Cardinal Ritter College Prep high school.

4. What has been the biggest disappointment/ongoing challenge as superintendent? The inability to stabilize or increase enrollment in our Catholic schools.

5. What was your most humbling moment as superintendent? Meeting Pope John Paul II.

6. Who has been a mentor? The individuals who most influence me in my role as superintendent would be my two predecessors, Bishop John Leibrecht and Sister Mary Ann Eckhoff.

7. Who was your favorite teacher? Father Robert Eimer, OMI

8. What kind of a student were you in grade school/high school? I worked hard, was responsible and interested in learning.

9. Who was the biggest celebrity you've met? A private dinner with Stan and Lil Musial.

10. If you were to spend a day with some public figure (dead or alive), who would it be? St. Thomas Aquinas.

11. What advice do you have for students today? Do not take your Catholic education for granted and commit yourself to developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ throughout your lifetime.

12. What advice do you have for your successor? To trust and support the staff at the Catholic Education Center as well as to develop a collaborative working relationship with Archbishop Carlson and the pastors and principals in our Catholic schools. Also, be sure that religious education programs for our children in public schools remains a priority.

13. What are some hobbies or pursuits you'll have in retirement? Golf, reading and spending more time with my family. 

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