January 28, 2022

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

The gift of a Catholic education draws three school leaders back home to a faith community that changed their lives

Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison has been blessed to have three of its graduates return to their alma mater in leadership roles: principal Curt Gardner, left, chaplain Father Christopher Craig and president Philip Kahn. (Photo courtesy of Laura J. Gardner)

Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison has been blessed to have three of its graduates return to their alma mater in leadership roles: principal Curt Gardner, left, chaplain Father Christopher Craig and president Philip Kahn. (Photo courtesy of Laura J. Gardner)

By John Shaughnessy

The friendships that are made in Catholic schools often stay strong later in life. So do people’s bonds to the Catholic schools where they made those friends.

Then there is the special connection that binds Father Christopher Craig, Philip Kahn and Curt Gardner.

All three are graduates of Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School in Madison. And all three have returned in leadership roles at their alma mater.

Kahn is the president of the school. Gardner is its principal. And Father Craig serves as its chaplain while also being the pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison and Most Sorrowful Mother of God Parish in Vevay.

All three also share the gift of how their Catholic education growing up touched their lives and eventually led them back home.

A perfect fit

The childhood memory has stayed with Philip Kahn, reminding him of the difference a community can make to a person and a family struggling through a devastating time in their lives.

That heartbreaking time for Kahn and his family happened when he was a young child at Pope John XXIII School in Madison.

“My father passed away when I was 8 years old,” Kahn recalls. “My three sisters and my mother were in a very difficult situation, but once my mother decided to stay in Madison and keep us in school, it was amazing to get all the support and love from the schools.

“I truly felt like the schools and our community watched over our families and took care of us. I have been eternally grateful and know that it is one of the main reasons I feel as though my Catholic faith is so strong today.”

Equally strong is his continuing commitment as an adult to both Pope John XXIII School and nearby Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School—the combined Prince of Peace Catholic Schools that Kahn oversees as their president.

Kahn has served in that role since 2009, a year when he and his wife Tania faced a turning point in their family’s life. At the time the president’s position became open, Kahn “really enjoyed” living in Indianapolis and his job at Eli Lilly & Co. Still, the opportunity to return to Madison called to him.

“There were many reasons that my family and I chose to make the change,” recalls Kahn, a 1987 graduate of Shawe. “The first was because of the strong feelings I had from my experience as a youth.

“Secondly, we wanted our three boys to grow up in a similar environment so that their Catholic formation would be strong. We have been so fortunate to be a part of these schools. We see our children thriving academically, spiritually and so much more. This has been a perfect fit for us.”

Part of that perfect fit for Kahn includes the joy he gets from watching the growth of the students at both schools.

“As the president of the schools, I get to see it from a unique perspective. I don’t always see them on a daily basis, but I get to have an impact through many of the activities inside and outside of the classroom. I love seeing them grow and mature over the five, 10, 14 years that they are in the schools. They start out as little kids in preschool or kindergarten most of the time, but grow into such fine young men and women. It makes us all very proud to see the impact we can have.

“Another area that I truly enjoy is working with our alumni. I love to see them come back for a visit or a reunion and hear all the stories that are still being told after so many years. We are truly a small family that gets to follow how our alumni have a great impact all over the world.”

The impact of a Catholic education is needed more than ever in today’s world, he says.

“So many children are growing up with more challenges. Grandparents are raising more kids,

single-parent households, there’s the internet and cell phones. Our world can be crazy in so many ways. It’s important to help students form a strong faith in their early years along with wonderful academics.”

He knows the difference that combination made in his own life.

“I truly feel that I am very lucky to be the president of Shawe and Pope John. I am glad to give back to the schools that gave me so much growing up.”

A special gift

Father Christopher Craig had just returned from sharing one of the most intimate moments with a family.

Minutes earlier, he had been praying with the family of a parishioner who had just died, and the sacredness of that sharing still touched him.

“One of the most special gifts of my priesthood is being able to celebrate the great events of life—births and baptisms, graduations and weddings, and to walk with people through the valleys of sadness, suffering and death that we all encounter in life.”

Another special gift for Father Craig is that as pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Madison he gets to share such moments in the community where he grew up, where he attended school, where his call to the priesthood took shape.

“I grew up just a short walk from what was then St. Michael’s Church and was called on frequently by the priests to serve Mass,” he recalls. “There were many Catholics in our neighborhood, and I thought everybody was Catholic. I remember as a young boy being awed by the liturgy and the beauty of the Church. I dreamed of what it must be like to be a priest, but never thought then I could ever be a priest.”

He praises his parents—Charles and Carol Craig—for the sacrifices they made for him and his brothers to attend Catholic schools. He remembers two teachers who told him through the years that he would make a good priest. He also credits his first-grade teacher for shaping his view of God and one of his homilies.

“As a first-grader, my teacher, Sister Ivo Birch, collected rocks and taught us that God is strong like a rock. To this day, I still credit Sister Ivo in my homily when the Gospel reading about building your house on rock is read at Mass.”

From that solid foundation, he has grown to become the spiritual leader of the parish, including its grade school and its high school—a role he views with humor at times.

“Many of my former teachers are good friends and remain close today,” says the 1983 graduate of Shawe. “It makes me laugh when I think about being my former teachers’ boss. It is more than a privilege.”

Most of all, he rejoices in still being part of a community that has long influenced “Our parish and schools are my family and my home. I know many of our administrators, faculty and staff feel the same way.

“My parents are buried close to their parents in our parish cemetery just a few yards from my favorite door of Shawe High School. It is my favorite door because it is the door that leads to Pope John’s cafeteria for lunch. I will be buried next to my parents one day overlooking the schools. That makes me smile.”

‘We are called to love’

Curt Gardner had reached a point in his life where he felt he wasn’t doing all he could, all he wanted to do. So he turned to God for help.

“My wife and I were struggling for a few years with a sense that we were not doing enough for the communities we were in,” Gardner says about him and his wife Laura.

“So when the opportunity came to both serve a great community and provide a great education and life experience for my own kids, I could not deny that God was answering some prayers.”

As the principal of Shawe Memorial High School, Gardner has tapped into some of the lessons that once shaped his life as a student at Shawe and Pope John XXIII School.

“These schools helped my parents to teach me how to be a leader and gave me opportunities to lead,” says Gardner, a 1998 graduate of Shawe. “They helped me feel, as I went out into the world, that I had a safety net that made it OK for me to take risks and gave me the freedom to fail so that I might one day succeed.

“It never would have worked without the partnership between school and home. When that partnership is in place, then Catholic schools are still doing these things for students today.”

Gardner also embraced Father John Meyer as a role model, remembering the impact the priest had as he served the Madison Catholic community from 1990 to 2011.

“He was in Madison for much of my youth,” Gardner says “So much of what led me to think of service and service to my faith was the influence that he was to me. He was such a great example of Christ’s love. He served our community, our schools and my family with such joy that as I grew to understand our Catholic faith, I always saw it as a thing of great joy.”

Now, he tries to be an example of Christ’s love to students and their families, both in moments of joy and hardship.

“The moments that often stand out are moments of hardship,” he says. “In those moments, communities step up to support each other in ways that show us how to love one another. In my 10 years, I have been able to walk next to a lot of people who were struggling in various ways, and it is those moments that really stand out to me as what it means to be in a Catholic school community.”

It’s all part of the gift and promise of a Catholic education, Gardner says.

“Catholic schools teach our kids to love our Father in heaven and each other. We are called to love. Equally importantly, at our best, we teach kids that love is not just a feeling but actions of service and sacrifice to others.

“It is through these actions that we grow God’s grace in this world. Catholic school students should know how to grow God’s grace when they leave our halls.” †


See more coverage from our Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!