By Eric Brooks
Without doubt, COVID has taken many things away from us this past year. Physical closeness with our fellow human beings; familiar faces hidden behind masks; libraries, museums, and theaters; toilet paper. However, in the midst of its deprivations, the global pandemic has also given us unique opportunities. For Julie Freeman that includes having her four grown children back at home. She has enthusiastically watched them grow as young adults, grow as siblings, and grow closer as a family. In fact, it was her family that led Julie into becoming principal at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School.
Previously she had taught at several diocesan schools and nine years ago was a 5th grade teacher at our parochial school. They were in search of a new principal and Julie was chosen to be part of the Hiring Team guiding that search. When the exhausting search was complete, their chosen candidate was unable to accept the position. Julie remembers standing with Fr. Millisor in the school playground when he asked her to serve as interim principal.
Julie had never thought of entering administration, had no aspirations for it, and her professional background did not involve any preparation for such a position. Her appreciation for art has made Julie a very visual person and, at that moment, she envisioned Father offering to hand her a large platter of precariously balanced, exquisite fine china while saying, “I want you to take this, but please make sure you don’t drop any of it.”
What followed was a week of intense prayer, discussions with her husband, and as Julie describes it, “Constantly hiding from everyone behind a pair of sunglasses.” There were many serious considerations to her accepting the position and Julie was torn. Finally, her son cornered her in the family garage and said, “Dad told me, and you have to take this; you’d be great.” It was as if God had heard her prayers and the Holy Spirit was speaking through her family. It was clear he had placed a path in front of her.
Fr. Larry Richards once spoke of his first assignment as pastor and administrator of a parish. Formation and seminary had left him prepared to administer the Sacraments, shepherd his flock, and write homilies. He was educated in philosophy and theology and prepared to offer counsel. However, on his first day as pastor, Fr. Richards was informed by his new staff the church roof needed to be replaced. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and with his typical brusqueness, Fr. Richards blurted out, “What the [blank] do I know about replacing a roof?!”
I asked Julie if the transition between teaching and administrator had been similar for her. She replied that until you have been principal at a Catholic school, you can never fully understand what is involved. Julie further explained that Catholic principals are closer to “mini-superintendents” compared to their secular counterparts. She received her master’s degree as well as a diocesan crash course on expenses, funding, and the literal stacks of forms necessary to run a parochial school. No doubt that was only the beginning to the complexity and minutia involved with running what is essentially a mid-sized business.
Personally, Julie’s most significant change was accepting the chaos of the position. As a teacher she could literally develop class plans for an entire year, knowing exactly what she would be teaching on Thursday, January 14, for example. As a principal Julie has a cluttered calendar and what she describes as an “affinity for post-it notes,” but every day is different and last-minute changes can throw that calendar and those post-it notes into instant flux.
Despite that, Julie has absolutely no regrets on her decision and for her this is not a job. She becomes extremely passionate when talking about the students at the school, saying “We care very deeply about them.” They are her extended family and Julie jokes that despite the face masks she knows each of them well enough to know if they are smiling, blanking out, or pouting just from their eyes. During these recent challenges she is always impressed by how all the students care for one another and loves seeing how they are not only being educated, but growing into ethical, responsible young persons.
As Julie explains, “They are always given opportunities and choices, some of which have consequences.” However, it is often those failures that provide the richest learning opportunities for the students, particularly when they have the chance to reflect on their opportunities and reconsider the choices they decided to make. These are incredibly valuable skills that will serve the students later in life equally well, if not more so, than their academic lessons.
Julie’s passion for her school family is obvious. There have been many times when she has come home still affected by something that happened during the academic day. Her husband will tell her that she just needs “to let it go” like he does when he leaves work, and her response is “it’s not the same.” For Julie, Catholic schools are not a profession, but a vocation. When a student is struggling or leaves the school she is always plagued by the thought, “We need to do more.”
In addition to being an administrator at the parochial school, Julie and her family are long time parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She is greatly appreciative of the parish and believes it gives all the students at the school an opportunity to live a Sacramental life. Participation in Holy Communion, Reconciliation, and Confirmation make the students not just members of the school, but also members of the parish. Julie also sees great opportunity in the various ministries for her students to become more deeply involved with her larger parish family.
Conversely, Julie believes the school brings an amazing opportunity for growth to the parish. By involving her students in the Sacramental life at the parish, she often sees their parents own faith and participation renewed and reinvigorated. In this way, the school serves to evangelize our shared Catholic faith with an increasingly larger audience. Julie also knows the students bring an energy and innocence to the parish. As someone who regularly attends the all-school weekday masses, I can attest to that. There is something exceedingly special about seeing several hundred uniformed children all united together in celebration of our Risen Lord and the sacrifice He made to offer us a chance of eternal salvation.
Outside of her roles as wife, mother, administrator, and parishioner, Julie is a proud Westsider. She considers Grove City and Our Lady of Perpetual Help her home and family. In her rare free moments, Julie continues to embrace art with watercolors being her preferred medium, describing art as, “It helps to feed me.” Occasionally she is able to slip into the art room and teach a quick class, something that helps connect to her past as an educator and brings Juile closer to her school family.
If she were given a magic wand or a genie’s lamp and could have one wish, Julie would provide a Catholic education to anyone who wants one. And she would give everyone in Grove City a desire for that Catholic education because it is that important to her. Technically, that would be two wishes, but in the movie Aladdin the title character was able to trick an extra wish out of Robin William’s genie, so I suppose we can let that slide.
Years after his ordination, Fr. John Riccardo ran across a childhood friend who was amazed he had been called to the priesthood. She knew he had always wanted to have kids and conjectured he would have been a great father. Paraphrasing his response, Fr. Riccardo said, “Have you been to my parish? I have hundreds of kids.” I suspect it is similar for Julie; she has four kids at home, and a few hundred kids at the school.
As she says, “I am always about faith and family. And helping one another.”