Monday, February 04, 2002

Catholic educator is leaving legacy behind

Sister Kathryn Ann Connelly

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sister Kathryn Ann Connelly, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, isn't an inch over 5 feet. It's a running joke, she says.

        “I'll go places and they'll say, "Sister, stand up.' And I'll say, "I am standing.'”

        Make no mistake, though. The 69-year-old Sister of Charity may be small, but she's mighty.

        Sister Connelly is head of the ninth-largest Roman Catholic school system in the country, with 56,000 students enrolled in 22 secondary and 114 elementary schools.

        Last week, she announced plans to retire in June.

        “She's left a great legacy for Catholic education, not only in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, but in the nation,” said Dan Curtin, executive director of the Chief Administrators of Catholic Education.

        Sister Connelly has been superintendent of schools since 1983 and director of educational services, including religious education, since 1988. She was the first female school superintendent in the archdiocese.

On top of trends

               Friends and colleagues describe Sister Connelly as a tough but pleasant visionary who's on top of education trends.

        She loves a good Irish story, and never misses the St. Patrick's Day party at Holy Family Church in Price Hill. She has a great sense of humor and has been known to diffuse difficult situations with it, they say.

        “She has a very pleasant personality that allows her to get a lot of things done that most people may not be able to get done,” Mr. Curtin said. “She's going to be greatly missed.”

        Yet even when she was a teacher, nobody messed with Sister Connelly.

        She has high expectations. She's also the kind of boss who will give her staff an assignment and then move out of the way, respecting and trusting their abilities to get the job done.

        “But she's always available,” said Sister Catherine Kirby, assistant superintendent. “She never says, "I'm busy, Come back later.' She'll stop everything.”

        A Price Hill native, Sister Connelly graduated from Seton High School and returned as principal in 1976. Susan Gibbons, current principal at Seton, has known her for years. Sister Connelly taught Ms. Gibbons English at Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio, then hired her as a teacher.

        “She was a real no-nonsense principal,” Ms. Gibbons recalled. “She didn't mince words with you. She'd tell you right upfront. She was a strong advocate of Catholic schools, what we should be teaching and how we can get better at it.”

        Sister Connelly lans to take time for herself and then figure out what to do next.

        “I've never had time to do any volunteering. You sit on boards, but you haven't really rolled your sleeves up. That's probably one of the things I'd like to do,” she said.

        Sister Connelly still lives in the Price Hill home where she was raised and plans to do a little fixing up.

        “I went to Home Depot and I thought, "Ooh, I'm going to sign up for these courses and learn how to do that,'” she said.

Worries over tuition

               Sister Connelly said she is comfortable retiring now because she thinks the Catholic schools are in good shape.

        “To be honest with you, it's time. ... There are a lot of other things that could get done, but maybe somebody else with better ideas or fresh ideas should do it,” she said.

        The biggest challenge for Catholic schools is keeping them affordable.

        “That's my biggest worry,” she said. “That we're going to price ourselves out of business.”

        Costs for security, technology and salaries combine to drive tuition costs up. But teachers still aren't paid what they should be, she said.

        “In some instances, our teachers can't afford to send their kids to Catholic schools,” Sister Connelly said. “That's hard. If I were to stay, that would be my next project.”

        But above all, her mission remains keeping Catholic schools Catholic. Academics are important, but she was thrilled when a parent survey last fall in 60 schools revealed “morality and values” as the top reason people choose Catholic schools.

        Along Walnut Street, a sign hangs in the window of the building that houses the archdiocesan offices: “Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school.”

        “This is an important sign,” Sister Connelly said, pointing at the window. “It has to be in every Catholic school. It has to be in the front hallway where everyone can see it — because Sister said.”


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