Pastoral leadership in schools helps Catholic identity shine

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Father Robert J. DeMartino heard the call to be a priest in Sister Marion Rita’s first grade class. He still remembers the sight of the priest’s shoes as he walked past Father DeMartino’s small desk and explained to the students how God calls certain men to be priests. “I think he’s calling me,” thought Father DeMartino.

 

For years, the memory of Sister Marion Rita stuck with Father DeMartino, now pastor of St. William of York Church in Stafford. In 1994, the former student and teacher reconnected. They exchanged birthday and Christmas gifts and kept in touch until her death in 2013.

“(Going to Catholic school) was a life-changing experience,” said Father DeMartino.

He tries to bring that same life-altering experience to the students at St. William of York School. As with other schools, St. Williams of York has a principal, teachers and faculty. But as a Catholic school, the pastor of the parish plays a role in the governance.

“My school is my most important apostolate. It’s also a business. And I have to wear both hats and keep them on simultaneously,” he said. “You have to be very cognizant that it can't function if it’s not a successful business venture.”

Pastors rely on principals for the day-to-day operations of the school. “The number one working relationship is between the pastor and the principal,” said David Conroy Jr., principal of All Saints School in Manassas. “The pastor's involvement is really everything, and it starts with the pastor's commitment to and belief in Catholic education … and a shared vision and approach.”

As Father DeMartino learned at a young age, priests can make a great impact on their schools by visiting the students and discussing the faith with them. Many pastors visit classrooms weekly, particularly focusing on second- and eighth-graders who will receive first Communion and penance or confirmation.

That frequent contact makes priests more approachable to the students, said David Lima, principal of St. William of York. “They don’t just see (Father DeMartino) up on the altar — they see him on their level,” he said.

Lima feels Father DeMartino supports the staff and faculty as well. “He’s very in tune with all of us and has an open door policy for any faculty member,” he said. On a personal note, said Lima, “My wife had a miscarriage last year and I ran to the office and he dropped everything. He took me in, gave me a hug and told me to do what I needed to.”

Last year at All Saints, a faculty member’s father suddenly died, said Conroy. His funeral was in Philadelphia. Father Lee R. Roos, pastor, told Conroy he was going to the funeral and invited him to come along. “I was so impressed by his generosity,” he said.

Conroy has seen Father Roos’ kindness in times of great crisis for students’ families. “When a family has a difficulty and they’re not sure how they're going to make a tuition payment, his response is always the same — that we stand by them,” said Conroy.

Pastors advocate for their schools by encouraging parishioners to enroll their children or to volunteer their time. Father DeMartino often mentions the school at Mass, said Lima, who is also a parishioner. “He says we’re the gem of the parish.”

In big moments and small, pastors make an effort to show love to their school communities. Often it can be as simple as saying goodbye at the end of the day.

“I like to be out there at dismissal time,” said Father DeMartino. “Asking what they learned or if they did any arts and crafts or meeting the parents. It's 20 minutes but sometimes it is my happiest time of the week. It builds the family and community environment I've always wanted to have here.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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