Principal’s ‘flame of love’ leads to award

| January 29, 2014 | 0 Comments
Holy Spirit School Principal Mary Adrian, center, talks with fifth-grader Sam McTeague, left, and sixth-grader Kate Dario after school. On most days, Adrian stands outside the building both before and after school so she can take advantage of the opportunity to visit with students.  Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Holy Spirit School Principal Mary Adrian, center, talks with fifth-grader Sam McTeague, left, and sixth-grader Kate Dario after school. On most days, Adrian stands outside the building both before and after school so she can take advantage of the opportunity to visit with students. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When students at Holy Spirit School in St. Paul start arriving at 7:50 a.m., they are greeted outside the building by principal Mary Adrian, holding her silver Keurig coffee cup and offering a warm smile.

Hers is generally the first face they see when they set foot on school grounds and also the last when they depart after the final bell at 2:50 p.m.

Adrian wouldn’t have it any other way. Passion for her job — and her students — runs deep. It pulls her out of bed every morning well before sunrise and brings her to her small office at 5 a.m. And, it has helped her earn a Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. She will receive the award at the NCEA national convention in Pittsburgh in April.

The quiet of her predawn solitude helps her do things like plan the day’s agenda and send emails. But, for her, the fun begins when the first students arrive. She eagerly exits the office to take her place in front of the school to give kids their first “hello” of the day. This is her way of delivering a personal message to each of the schools’ 330 students at the start of every school day.

“I think it’s important for the kids,” said Adrian, 61 and in her 15th year as principal of the school. “I think it’s part of being a community, and part of their knowing they are important and they’re welcome and they’re welcome every day, and they’re important to us and we’re glad to see them. I think that’s one of the things I hope kids know, is that every day when they walk through the building, the adults here are happy to see them.”

Beloved by parents, staff

The truth is, kids — and parents — know that simple truth long before they set foot in the building on their first day of school. Adrian meets with every prospective student and his or her parents when they are checking out the school. Many times, that meeting seals the deal.

“What sets her apart is how smart she is, how loving she is and how dedicated she is to every child who comes here,” said parent Joan Kenny, who has three children at the school — Mary (eighth grade), Catherine (sixth) and Margaret (first). “It’s something other parents talk about when they say why they chose Holy Spirit School. They say, ‘Well, it was one of our top choices. Then we went and we met Dr. Adrian and we were sold.’ People say that all the time. This job is her vocation. She has a way of making every child feel so loved and taken care of.”

Joan and her husband Tim were looking at five different schools when they were deciding where to send their oldest child to kindergarten. Then, they sat down with Adrian.

“We were just taken with how smart and bright she is, how knowledgeable,” Joan said. “Her passion comes through when you meet with her. [Holy Spirit School] was the right choice. It’s hard to describe in words how right it was. You just got this feeling that this is a place that’s in good hands.”

The adults who work with Adrian appreciate her many leadership qualities as well. Teachers feel appreciated and supported, and the pastor of Holy Spirit, Father Daniel Haugan, calls her “just amazing.”

“I have to say, in 10-and-a-half years of being a priest and always being with a Catholic school, she is the best principal I have ever worked with,” he said. “That is saying a great deal because I have worked with some really wonderful Catholic principals at the Catholic schools.

“She’s just phenomenal. She has an undying love for what she does. There’s just the flame of love in her heart for what she does. She pours out her whole self. Loving is not an emotion, not a fuzzy feeling, but it’s a reasonable, rational choice to live wholeheartedly for another. And, Mary lives wholeheartedly for the students and for this school. She pours herself out daily.”

Part of that involves showing appreciation for the 28 teachers who spend their days in the classroom with students. Adrian likes to give gifts to them as a reminder of how vital they are to the school’s success. Like the time two years ago when she hired a massage therapist to come in and provide some pampering for school staff.

It’s little touches like this that keep longtime teachers like Heidi Kaiser coming back. A kindergarten teacher, she came to Holy Spirit 22 years ago and had high words of praise for her boss.

“She’s absolutely wonderful,” Kaiser said. “She’s very dedicated to the school, to the parish. She’s the first person here and she’s the last person to go home. She’s always around and she really works hard to make this a good place. When you come here to Holy Spirit, you feel a strong sense of family and community. You can just feel it when you walk in.”

Middle school teacher Deb Townley has seen a few principals come and go during her 42 years at the school, but ranks Adrian among the best.

“I think kids gravitate to her because she is soft-spoken,” Townley said. “She is firm, but she always has the children first. If it’s good for the child, then we have to pursue it. That’s been our mantra. That’s how we operate as teachers.”

Lasting influence

This school year, the school reached out to students who had attended St. Francis-St. James School only about a mile away. The school closed at the end of last school year, and 26 of its students came to Holy Spirit in the fall. Most of them are students of color, either Latino or African. A handful came from the African countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Mathewos Ghebeye from Eritrea was trying to find the right fit for two of his children, Noah (seventh grade) and Sammy (second).

“We were looking at different schools,” he said. “Our kids stayed here one day and they loved it. They said, ‘Stop shadowing different schools. We’re going to stay here.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said it starts with the principal. She is not only a principal, she’s [like] a mom.”

Another parent, John Barrett, said Adrian’s influence on his children continued after they left the school. One of his sons, Joseph, now teaches at a Catholic grade school in Denver. And, his daughter Annemarie currently is doing missionary work in Bolivia with the Franciscan Mission Service. In fact, Holy Spirit is showing students videos she is sending of her experiences there, so that they can connect to her two-year term of service.

And, Barrett traces that strong faith connection to the school’s principal.

“I think the world of Mary Adrian,” he said. “She lives her faith in her work and that’s obvious. She does it quietly, without a lot of fanfare.”

Well, there’s sure to be a little fanfare now that she has been named a distinguished principal. She has joined an elite group of principals in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who have won the award. In fact, this year will be the eighth year in a row that the archdiocese has had a distinguished principal winner. Last year, it was Jane Hileman of St. Helena School in Minneapolis.

Although Adrian is delighted to win the award, calling it a “huge honor,” she reserved her strongest words of gratitude for the job she is able to do, starting at 5 every morning and often ending well after the sun goes down and the rest of her staff has gone home for the day.

“Holy Spirit is such a great place,” said Adrian, who plans to work there until she retires. “And, I think it’s just such an honor to be here, to be part of the lives of the kids and the families that I get to be part of every day. That’s just a great blessing to have.”


Past winnersThe following are NCEA distinguished principal award winners from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the last 20 years:

2014: Mary Adrian, Holy Spirit School in St. Paul

2013: Jane Hileman, St. Helena School in Minneapolis

2012: Kate Wollan, Nativity of Our Lord School in St. Paul

2011: Jane Schmidt, Highland Catholic School in St. Paul

2010: Cressy Epperly, St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater

2009: Kathleen O’Hara, St. Vincent de Paul School in Brooklyn Park

2008: Rita Humbert, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Hastings.

2007: Jan Heuman, All Saints School in Lakeville

2003: Nancy Ronhovde, Guardian Angels School in Chaska

2002: Maureen Trenary, Our Lady of Grace School in Edina

2001: Gary Wilmer, St. Charles Borromeo School in St. Anthony

1998: Cheri Gardner, St. John the Baptist School in Savage

1996: Jane Nordin, St. Joseph School in West St. Paul

1994: Sister Clarice Gierzak, St. Jerome School in Maplewood

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Category: Catholic Schools Week