Mary Keefer, principal at St. John the Baptist School in Fort Wayne, has been in teaching for many years and so has experienced the inner workings of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. “I’m a product of Catholic schools,” she said. “My children went to Catholic schools. I’ve worked in Catholic schools for 40 years.”
And according to her, “Catholic schools shine bright.”
Keefer’s hope for the future of Catholic schools is based on the unique education and experience they provide. “Catholic schools exist to assist parents in that awesome task of teaching their children about the faith,” she said. “We work our faith into all of our teachings, into our curriculum. The worth and the value of a Catholic education gives me hope.”
At St. John the Baptist School, students have the chance to grow academically and have integrated faith lessons such as Church history or the writings of the saints. They receive sacraments and observe the seasons of Advent and Lent with schoolwide activities. They also pray the rosary and practice a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and staff and students pray for each other when someone has a hard day or needs some support.
“So many leaders in our city have gone to Catholic schools and sent their children to Catholic schools and believe in the Catholic school system,” Keefer said. “Our Catholic school system is strong in Fort Wayne and in South Bend, and that gives me hope. People are still applying to work here. They went to Catholic school, so they want to work in Catholic school, or they went to Catholic school, so they want to send their children to Catholic school.”
Keefer noted the holy work of Catholic school teachers and their dedication. “They’re on a mission to fulfill their vocation which is to teach these kids.”
Keefer taught seventh and eighth grade at St. John the Baptist School for nearly 10 years. Following that, she served at Bishop Luers High School — also in Fort Wayne — as the head of the theology department. She became assistant principal at a public school and then principal at Bishop Luers, where she worked for 20 years.
After four years of retirement, Keefer received a phone call from Father Andrew Budzinski, pastor at St. John the Baptist Parish, asking her to be principal at St. John the Baptist School.
“This is my parish. My children went here and I had taught here, and so I said yes,” Keefer reflected. “It’s a labor of love.” This is Keefer’s second year.
Giving back is important to her. “I’ve been so blessed in my life. It’s a calling, a vocation,” she said. “People who work in Catholic schools love it. I love school, I love the kids, I love the process. It’s a good place to be.”
When asked what graduating students leave Catholic schools with, Keefer said: “They take away relationships, first and foremost. They take relationships, they take values, they take virtues. They take the knowledge that this was a good place to be and turn around and send their children here or to another Catholic school.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, St. John the Baptist School stayed open after coming back from the initial shutdown.
“It’s been incredibly challenging, but we’re so lucky we didn’t have to close again,” Keefer said. “That’s our biggest accomplishment, that we have been able to not close our doors.”
She hopes the coming years will see robust involvement in Catholic school systems.
“There’s something traditional about a Catholic education. It involves the deep care that our teachers have for our students. Catholic schools are families, they’re communities — and that’s an asset.”
Keefer is proud of the sustainability of Catholic schools, too. She said, “In spite of the ups and downs and the societal influence on our families and our children, we’re still here, we’re still working hard, we’re still viable, we’re still an awesome alternative for families and I think we shine bright. We offer the opportunity to receive the sacraments and to go to Mass, and have kids grow and thrive.”
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