February 2, 2024

A childhood hardship and ‘a miracle’ help to guide a principal

As the principal of St. Monica School in Indianapolis, Eric Schommer strives to connect with students through his faith and his interactions with them. (Submitted photo)

As the principal of St. Monica School in Indianapolis, Eric Schommer strives to connect with students through his faith and his interactions with them. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

From his own hardship as a child—and his “personal experience of a miracle”—Eric Schommer has always had a soft spot in his heart for children who face extra challenges in school and life.

When he was in the first grade, Schommer had Perthes’ disease, a rare condition that disrupts the flow of blood to the head of the thigh bone, causing the bone to deteriorate and often leaving a child with pain, a limp and limited movement of the hip joint.

“I wore a full leg brace for the duration of the diagnosis,” recalls Schommer, the principal of St. Monica School in Indianapolis. “This impacted my activities after school while running and riding bikes. It was also the focus of issues on the playground because we always played kickball.”

Left on the sidelines, Schommer found a refuge while visiting his uncle who lived at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis.

“I would visit him every week to hang out, play chess, eat in the dining room with the Little Sisters, and go to church,” he notes. “As soon as my uncle knew what was happening to me, he started praying for me intently while also attending daily Mass and multiple prayer services, with his healing intentions for me.

“Before second grade, I no longer required a brace, and X-rays showed that I no longer had Perthes. The following two years, my doctor would have me walk down the hall every time I came in for weekly allergy shots so he could show other doctors and nurses how I no longer had a limp. He cited it as a miracle, as there was an expectation of a need for a brace for several years.”

That childhood turnaround continues to affect the life and faith of Schommer, who is now 53.

“I have always believed in the power of prayer,” he says. “I do not look at prayer as a request session with God, but a way to communicate with God in such a manner that I am open to hear his call. Sometimes, that results in miracles. Other times, people are guided to be in the right place at the right time for support. Or perhaps they have the right thing to say to help someone in need. My faith life is rooted in prayer.”

His life as an educator is rooted in his embrace of all children, especially the ones who can sometimes feel they are on the outside—including children with special education needs and children from immigrant backgrounds. (See more stories about our Catholic schools here)

More than half—53%—of the 342 students at St. Monica School are from Latino families, while another 22% are Black, many of them from the countries of Senegal and Nigeria. Nearly 20% of

St. Monica students receive special education support, and 33% of the children are taking English as a New Language classes.

“St. Monica has a large number of non-native, English-speaking students and special education students that, under Eric’s leadership, are receiving the same Catholic educational experience as any peer,” says Sarah Watson, an assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“He also spends [one hour] one day a week in eucharistic adoration, growing this practice at the school. He invites students to adore with him and is always modeling the mission to make saints.”

That combination helped lead the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools to nominate Schommer as its choice for principal for this year’s National Catholic Educational Association’s Lead, Learn, Proclaim Award.

His selection reveals a great deal about Schommer. So do two thoughts that he shares in his e-mails to anyone who contacts him through that communication.

A powerful story

The first of his two messages declares, “Celebrate our differences and unite in our values.”

“That is my motto. It articulates how I look at and how I want people to approach our community’s diversity,” Schommer says about St. Monica School. “This community is richly diverse in cultural, ethnic, linguistic and academic families. Our diversity is what makes us who we are, and our values guide how we act.”

Schommer shares a powerful story to illustrate that belief.

“I remember having a student come to me as a senior in high school to show me his end-of-term project. It described how his attendance and participation at St. Monica and Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School [in Indianapolis] helped him better understand how similar Catholicism was to his family’s faith. The uniqueness of this story was that he was raised Muslim, and his father died when he was in fifth grade.

“According to his culture, he became the head of household at the time of his father’s death. He described the aspects that helped him become a strength for his family.”

Schommer continues, “Often we have had parents and family members come to the school to talk about issues they are having with health, finances or disagreements within the home. It brings me joy to see they view the school as a safe resource for support.”

A poignant message

The second message that marks Schommer’s e-mails is this one, “Please remember all of the relationships, people and activities that bring you closer to God.”

“A few years ago, I was listening to various conversations about how people were getting ready to spend their time over an extended break. Some were expressing a lack of hope and despair. They were looking for connections and having a difficult time finding them,” he recalls. “If I can help build connections by providing information, lending a hand or listening, then I am following my call to serve.”

Working with St. Monica’s pastor, Father John McCaslin, Schommer has emphasized eucharistic adoration as a defining way to build connections with people and with God.

“Father John and I began eucharistic adoration as a weekly school opportunity to provide our children with an understanding of the Eucharist,” Schommer says. “For me, the Eucharist is an integral connection directly with Christ. I find myself drawn to a deeper prayer life when I am focused on this aspect of my faith.”

It’s a focus on faith that helps guide him as a husband to his wife of 29 years, Gara, and as the father of their two children, Emily and Jacob.

His faith also guides his efforts to become fluent in Spanish to better communicate with Hispanic parents, who struggle speaking English.

“As a school, we have been driven by a belief that all students should be provided the opportunity to have a Catholic education,” Schommer says. “I am rewarded daily while leading our team in the faith development of our students and their families. It provides me with an opportunity for daily, faith-focused conversations and interactions. 

“As an educator, I find the benefit invaluable of expressing those thoughts and experiences with our youth, so they have opportunities to develop their faith life. A Catholic school environment provides the authentic opportunities to understand mind, body and spirit.” †

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