May 24 was Susan Richter’s last official day as principal of Saint Joseph High School, South Bend. She retired from administration in Catholic schools after 23 years of dedicated, passionate service.
“Susan is the most dedicated person I know,” reflected Father Terrence Coonan, chaplain of SJHS. “She worked unbelievably hard for the students, teachers and families of Saint Joseph High School. Susan always kept the faith formation of the students as the primary focus, even as she continued to support strong academics and extra-curricular activities. … In her, we saw Christ the servant doing the dirty work of washing feet day after day.”
Originally from Fort Wayne, Richter graduated from South Side High School as salutatorian and earned a B.A. in U.S. history and American government, with a minor in physical education, from Purdue University. Later, she earned her M.A. from Purdue and completed the ACE Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame.
She has always served in Catholic education, first teaching social studies and coaching girls basketball and track at Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Illinois. Richter served in administration at Montini, as girls athletic director, for three years before moving to South Bend. She started at SJHS in 1995, serving as director of student life and dean of students as well as a math teacher. She then served as principal from 2005 until the present day.
She is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, South Bend. She and her husband, Patrick, are the parents of two adult sons.
Richter oversaw the transition from the original St. Joseph High School at 933 N. Michigan St. to a new facility on Notre Dame Avenue. She spearheaded the Forward in Faith Capital Campaign that allowed the school to move from dream to reality. Richter fondly remembers the groundbreaking ceremony in June 2010 and the dedication of the school in August 2012.
“Being a part of such an extraordinary effort was special,” she said. “The new school provides the Saint Joe community with an incredible state-of-the-art facility. I love the new school and am extremely proud of my efforts to help our steering committee make the campaign a success.” But she is most proud of the school’s ability to send forth graduates who are faith-filled and academically prepared, understanding the responsibility to serve with joy those in need.
“The essence of the school includes our great traditions of faith, academics and service. We have a new building, but we are still fulfilling the same mission. We are transforming our students in heart and mind. Our Catholic identity is the key to what we are doing with our students. We teach the faith first, and then the subject. It is our responsibility as Catholic educators to help our students develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the center of our school. We help our students answer God’s call.”
It is this simple but profound truth that grounded Richter in her work as a Catholic administrator. Her focus on the priorities of Catholic education allowed Christ to be first in student and school life. Pastorally, this looked like welcoming every student into the school community, regardless of race or background; opening her home and building community for the teachers and staff for the annual “Back to School Year” barbecue, cooking for them herself with her husband; joyfully supporting students outside the classroom; attending countless sporting and academic events outside of business hours; and even small gestures such as choosing a faith-based gift for her staff at Christmas.
“The main focus of a Catholic administrator is to teach the faith. We should have two goals at the high school level: to help our students be admitted to the college of their choice, and help get them to heaven and home to God. It is about eternal life and having a seat at the heavenly banquet,” she said.
This priority of “first things first” allowed SJHS to develop and flourish for 13 years during Richter’s term as principal.
Henry Chandler, former dean of students and fellow social studies teacher, now an alumni coordinator, explained. “In Susan’s 23 years at Saint Joe, she has become the face of our school: to the students, the diocese, the community and especially to the faculty and staff. She has been friend to some, counselor to others, mentor to still others, academic and spiritual leader to all. She has constantly inspired and exhorted teachers to put students first, to guide them, to share wisdom with them, to provide examples of courage and justice to them, to transform them in heart and mind, preparing them to serve God, the Church and the world,” he said. “Her leadership has consistently steered the Saint Joe ship on a course to building faith, character and excellence in everything we do. Susan has worked each day to build family, reach higher, discover gifts and serve with joy. She has made the ultimate success of our students her primary goal: not graduation from Saint Joe or college, not a financially rewarding adult life, not a relaxing retirement but the eternal reward of heaven.”
At Richter’s retirement party, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades shared his first memories of her, including her devotion to the mission of a Catholic education. He also recalled the words of his predecessor, Bishop John M. D’Arcy, about Richter.
“He was right; she was remarkable. I’ve never had to worry about the formation and education here. I’ve trusted her leadership here, because this was not a job for Susan. This was truly part of her vocation. … Thank you for your service to God and His Church,” he told her.
Richter is looking forward to returning to the classroom, which she calls her first love and the reason she became a Catholic educator. She will teach junior high social studies at St. Matthew Cathedral School.
“I am grateful to Sister Gianna Marie, principal, and Father Terry Fisher, pastor and a Saint Joe grad, for providing me this opportunity. I am excited to meet my students in August,” Richter said.
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