Catholic school leaders honored for making a difference, ‘legacy of faith’

Lisa Gray, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul School, Nauvoo, receives a retirement gift from Bishop Louis Tylka at the end-of-the-year celebration hosted by the Office of Catholic Schools on May 3. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Meeting challenge after challenge presented by COVID-19 for the last two years has left many principals and pastors of Catholic schools tired. At a Mass marking the end of the school year, however, Bishop Louis Tylka let them know their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

“You are a gift to us, to our schools, to our church, to our communities because of who you are,” he said at the May 3 liturgy that drew them to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. “Perhaps we may never get an opportunity to hear those compliments made directly to us. But I assure you that they are there.”

He also assured them that they are changing hearts and minds for Jesus.

“You are a gift to us, to our schools, to our church, to our communities because of who you are.” — Bishop Louis Tylka

“You are making a difference in the world, just as the apostles did,” Bishop Tylka said during his homily. “And you are leaving a legacy of faith, just as the apostles did.”

The annual celebration, sponsored by the Office of Catholic Schools, included a luncheon at the nearby Spalding Pastoral Center. Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of diocesan schools, was the master of ceremonies at the program that followed.

She said sometimes the difficulties of navigating the pandemic and its aftermath had left her discouraged. But when she walked into St. Mary’s Cathedral that morning and saw the pastors and principals gathered for Mass, she was filled with joy.

“There’s just something about coming together as a faith community of leaders, of clergy, and just knowing that we share the same mission and that you understand,” Dr. Weiss told them. “I thank you for being on this road with us, doing our Lord’s will as we work with his children to bring them to heaven.”


This academic year will be the last for four principals who are retiring. Honored were Lisa Gray of Sts. Peter and Paul School, Nauvoo; Patsy Santen of St. Vincent de Paul School, Peoria; Julie Schmitt of Peru Catholic School, Peru; and Mike Birdoes of Blessed Sacrament School, Morton. A fifth, Mark Janesky of Schlarman Academy, Danville, retired in January.

With Bishop Louis Tylka are the school leaders celebrating milestone anniversaries of service this year: Deborah Myers, principal of Trinity Catholic Academy, LaSalle, 25 years; Mike Birdoes, principal of Blessed Sacrament School, Morton, 30 years; and Father Gerald Ward, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, 40 years. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Recognized for milestone anniversaries were: Msgr. Gerald Ward, pastor, Blessed Sacrament Church, Morton, 40 years of service; Father James Pallardy, pastor, St. Anne Church, East Moline, 35 years; Mike Birdoes, principal, Blessed Sacrament School, Morton, and Father Glenn Harris, pastor, St. John the Baptist Church, Rapids City, and St. Mary Church, Hampton, 30 years; Deborah Myers, principal, Trinity Catholic Academy, LaSalle, 25 years; and Father Steve Loftus, pastor, Holy Family Church, Danville, 20 years.

The Office of Catholic Schools also honored three outstanding educators for their work to support Catholic school education. They are Vanessa Fite of Visitation Catholic School, Kewanee, who is the Distinguished Teacher of the Year; Patsy Santen of St. Vincent de Paul School, Peoria, who was chosen to be the Distinguished Principal of the Year; and Father Paul Joseph Langevin, OFM Conv., of Holy Family Parish, Peoria, who was recognized as the Distinguished Pastor of the Year.

Wayne Brau, principal at the Kewanee school, spoke on behalf of Fite, who has taught for 39 years — 35 of them at the Kewanee school. He said that when he interviewed to succeed Sheila Cromien at Visitation, he toured the school and was taken to Fite’s kindergarten classroom.

“She was introduced to me as ‘someone that everyone just loves,’” Brau said. “She has that caring nature, that loving nature for her students and it just transfers over to the students and the parents.”

Father Stephen Willard, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, spoke of Santen’s love for Catholic education, which informs everything she has done for the last eight years as principal. “It was never about herself, it was always about the school and serving,” he said.

“We work well together during the good times, during those struggling times,” he said. “We’ve always worked together, always stayed in communication.”

Santen accepted the award but insisted on sharing credit with her fellow principals and thanking them for their support.

“This honor is definitely for you — I’m just a representative. We all know how you work so hard,” she said, calling her work at St. Vincent de Paul “an absolute, wonderful journey.”

“It’s a wonderful way to end my 46 years in education,” Santen said.


There were tears on both sides as Stacie Gianessi, principal of Holy Family School, talked about Father Paul Joseph and he responded. He recently took the oath as the new minister provincial of the St. Bonaventure Province of the Conventual Franciscans and the religious community will be leaving the parish.

Father Paul Joseph Langevin, OFM Conv., pastor of Holy Family Parish, Peoria, hugs principal Stacie Gianessi, who nominated him as the Distinguished Pastor of the Year. He was honored by the Office of Catholic Schools on May 3. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Gianessi cited his gifts of humility, dedication, and wisdom, as well as his sense of humor, but said Father Paul Joseph’s top three gifts had been his support, his presence and his service.

Father Paul Joseph noted that he hadn’t been a pastor before coming to Holy Family in 2018, and said it was there that “I realized the fire in my belly for parochial ministry. Holy Family for the Conventual Franciscan Friars for the past 43 years . . . has been a bastion for how to really learn to be a parish priest.”

Leaving will be difficult, he said.

“I will truly miss you all,” Father Paul Joseph told the pastors and principals. “You have helped shape my priesthood. Six out of the last eight years of my priesthood have been in this diocese.”

Before he offered his final blessing, Bishop Tylka said he knew about the sacrifices they had made as they lived and worked on the front lines of the pandemic.

“I am very proud of our schools, which means I’m very proud of you because of all that you have done,” he said. “You are living out the Gospel. That means more than you understand, more than you know. You are making a difference in so many lives.”

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