January 25, 2013

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Living the faith: President ‘found’ her mission at school where ‘no one gets lost’

Franciscan Sister Therese Gillman enjoys a fun moment of playing cards with the students who are part of her “Marathon Monday” group, part of a program that connects students and staff members to come together to relax and talk about school, community and world issues. (Submitted photo)

Franciscan Sister Therese Gillman enjoys a fun moment of playing cards with the students who are part of her “Marathon Monday” group, part of a program that connects students and staff members to come together to relax and talk about school, community and world issues. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Shared in confidence, the parent’s words touched Franciscan Sister Therese Gillman.

“Sister, I don’t know if you know or not but I am not Catholic,” the parent told Sister Therese about his decision to send his children to Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception in Oldenburg. “I am doing what my parents did for me. I am surrounding my son and my daughter with good peers.”

The parent’s words also strike at the heart of why Sister Therese considers Catholic education so important for young people, especially during their high school years.

“Here at the Academy, students are surrounded with strong faith values that hopefully will provide them with the foundation they need to make good moral decisions in their future lives,” says Sister Therese, president of the private Catholic high school.

“It is my belief that Catholic secondary education is core to helping our young people be immersed in an environment that allows them to explore their faith and what it means to put that faith into action and live it each day.”

It’s an approach that Sister Therese embraced as a student at Oldenburg Academy, an approach that the 1969 graduate of the school who grew up as a member of St. Michael Parish in Brookville has tried to live as a religious sister and Catholic educator.

“It was here that I learned how to do a lot with a little and still transform lives,” says Sister Therese, who will step down at the end of the school year. “It was here that I also learned to use your talents to make a difference.”

After her high school graduation, she followed “a deeper call” to become a Franciscan sister. She taught for 13 years in a Catholic school of predominantly African-American students in Kansas City, Mo., worked as a business consultant across the country and the world, and then returned to Oldenburg Academy as its president in 2001.

One of the most important lessons she learned along the way came during those 13 years at St. Joseph School in Kansas City.

“I was very blessed to be under the mentorship of Franciscan Sister Myra Peine,” she recalls. “She helped instill in me the value of expecting the best from students and you will get it. Sister Myra always set the bar high no matter what obstacles students and families had to overcome. This value of ‘push, excel, succeed’ was further lived out at the Academy.”

During her 12 years as president of Oldenburg Academy, Sister Therese helped the longtime all-girls school become co-ed. She also implemented a program where every student has a computer. And her business background led to a strategic planning process while her concern for helping people in need led to a student service and volunteer program.

Another innovative program that has been established during her tenure is called “Marathon Monday.”

“The Academy instilled the program a couple of years ago to help students feel more welcome and connected to their peers,” notes Kayla Wessling, the school’s marketing communications coordinator. “Groups consist of about eight students from various grades and one faculty or staff mentor.

“They meet every last Monday of the month for about 25 minutes to discuss school, community and world issues as well as collaborate on what they would like to see Oldenburg Academy do to become more successful. Some of that time with the Marathon Monday groups is also spent just having fun and relaxing.”

All the initiatives reflect a collaborative approach to education that works best, according to Sister Therese.

“It’s so much bigger than me,” she says. “It’s very humbling to see how many people are so invested in this school to make sure it’s here for future generations. That’s so inspiring to see how our faculty, principal, staff and parents come together. Our parents work very hard and make lots of sacrifices to send their kids here.”

Similar to the parents, she focuses on the 210 students at the school.

“A hallmark for Oldenburg Academy is that no one gets lost,” she says. “We want to create an environment where the students could succeed in a faith-based environment.”

It’s the foundation she received as a student. It’s also the foundation that led her to return to lead the school as its first president.

“It was an opportunity to be closer to home, to be closer to the community, and also to give back to a place that had impacted my life,” she says. “I’ve been able to see these kids grow up to become young men and women, to know that there is a community of faith holding us up. That’s been most rewarding to me.” †

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