Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz stepped down as head of the Anchorage Archdiocese last month. One of his legacies over the past 15 years is his support of Catholic schools in Southcentral Alaska.
That commitment resulted in the establishment of a unified Catholic school system, the founding of a new Catholic elementary school in the Mat-Su Valley, and a measure of financial stability for Kodiak’s struggling elementary school.
Add to that an overall increased Catholic school enrollment during his tenure, despite challenges the last couple of years due to Alaska’s troubled economy.
“As a member of a religious community (the Oblates of Mary Immaculate), Archbishop Schwietz had teaching in his background,” said Adrian Dominican Sister Ann Fallon, who served as the first superintendent of the archdiocesan school system.
“He saw the value of Catholic schools and how the church grew out of those Catholic schools,” she told the Catholic Anchor.
One of Archbishop Schwietz’s earliest decisions was to invite the Adrian Dominicans to establish a community here. Later he asked Sister Fallon to work with schools.
“I wasn’t there three weeks when he said, ‘the people in the Mat-Su Valley have wanted a school for years. I think we need to find out how that can happen,’” Sister Fallon said.
She laughs now when recalling that she “didn’t know there was a Valley. And where is it?”
Soon 18 Mat-Su Valley residents gathered for a meeting, formed a committee and commissioned a survey of parishes. The positive results soon resulted in the opening of a school in a strip mall in Wasilla serving Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla, St. Michael Church in Palmer, Our Lady of the Lake Church in Big Lake and St. Christopher in Willow.
Joyce Lund, principal of Our Lady of the Valley School, said the school relocated two years ago to the campus of Sacred Heart in Wasilla, where there’s been a boom in enrollment.
During her time as principal, the school has grown from 26 students six years ago to more than 70 this year, including a preschool. Three large portables buildings obtained from the Anchorage Public School District have accommodated the growth.
“Archbishop Schwietz has stood beside us through many difficult decisions,” Lund said. “Through thick and thin, we always knew we could turn to him.”
She added: “The children really love him because he’s so approachable and easy to talk with. He’s a pastoral person.”
Catherine Neumayr, principal at Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage since 2010, echoes the sentiments about Archbishop Schwietz’s involvement.
“He has truly been a shepherd,” she said. “He’s so present that our students have to be reminded what a privilege it is to have him four or five times a year on our campus.”
Neumayr, along with other principals, said that the professional development introduced by the archbishop and by Sister Fallon, which continues to this day, has been a huge plus for the schools.
Principals, pastors and sometimes board members get together each year to “intermingle, share best practices, and share with the archbishop,” Neumayr said.
“It’s allowed for a wonderful comradery and friendship to develop between Catholic school administrators,” she added. During the past two years, the archbishop has brought in professional educators from the Archdiocese of Seattle to facilitate development.
Brian Ross, the new principal at Lumen Christi High School, a ministry of St. Benedict Church, said Archbishop Schwietz was “very welcoming to me as I began my transition. He has an openness about him.”
Ross was surprised when the archbishop invited him and his wife to sit at his table at the recent St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School auction. Inviting all the principals to share a table at school auctions has become another way the archbishop facilitates collegiality among the schools.
Brian Cleary is a principal, along with co-principal Teri Schneider, at St. Mary School in Kodiak, where several years ago Archbishop Schwietz sent Father Frank Reitter to evaluate whether the school could survive rough economic times.
With Father Reitter’s support, a tremendous effort by Cleary and community leaders, and some archdiocesan financial help, the school has “clawed our way back,” according to Cleary, rising from a low of 40 students to an enrollment near 80.
Kathy Gustafson is in her second year as principal at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a K-6 school of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in South Anchorage.
She, too, praised the “professional development for principals and pastors” which Archbishop Schwietz has promoted, “unifying Catholic schools into a real network.”
And the archbishop’s presence, at school Masses and at the Mass for Catholic Schools Week, is an important reminder to parents of the importance of Catholic education, she added.
John Harmon, who was principal at Lumen Christi from 2013 to spring of 2016, still assists at the school and serves as a substitute teacher.
He recalls that Archbishop Schwietz, in addition to regularly celebrating both weekday and graduation Masses with the students, coordinated the visit of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, to Lumen Christi.
During the visit, Cardinal Dolan remarked, “Schools like Lumen Christi give me hope.”
Harmon said Lumen Christi’s enrollment increased by over five percent during his time there, in no small part because of the support from Archbishop Schwietz.
Currently, there is no superintendent of schools, but Bonnie Bezousek, the archdiocesan director of faith formation, assists with coordination and helps to facilitate annual professional development.