Written by Ann Grote-Pirrung, Special to your Catholic Herald Thursday, 06 September 2012 08:48
Somewhere in Sr. Elizabeth Uchytil’s DNA there must be a “bringing together” gene. In the 30-plus years since she entered the convent to become a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sr. Betty, as she is known, has answered the call to help ease transitions in difficult situations.
From helping to “bring together” and consolidate two schools, to unifying faculties and families of the consolidated schools, to “bringing together” efforts to help boost enrollment in a school whose low numbers were troublesome, to a leadership position in her order that saw her “bringing together” four provinces over four different geographic areas encompassing 1,200 sisters, Sr. Betty has navigated some tumultuous, and potentially troubling, waters.
As of July 1, Sr. Betty’s special skills were again called into service when she became the founding principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Sheboygan.
The school, which will be housed on the campus of the former Holy Family Catholic School – itself a merger of Holy Name and St. Clement elementary schools – will welcome students from St. Dominic parish, yet another north side Sheboygan parish, whose school closed as a result of this merger.
The new school, with an enrollment of about 170, is named after the patron saint of Catholic education.
When schools close and mergers and consolidations take place, not everyone is happy. While Sr. Betty acknowledges the transition will be challenging, she also sees an abundance of potential for the new school.
“Beginning a new regional school for three parishes is a great privilege and challenge,” Sr. Betty said. “I know that even with my previous experiences this will be a very new call. But so much work has already been accomplished to bring this dream together.
I am awed by the dedication, passion and faithfulness of the people of these north side parishes who want to continue to have, at its core, faith formation and quality education for its families with children.”
Educating children has always been Sr. Betty’s first love. A fifth and sixth grade teacher in the public schools in her native Superior for 10 years before she entered the convent, Sr. Betty went to graduate school at UW-Milwaukee during her postulant years. She received her master’s degree and, as a newly-professed sister, became a principal at a small school in Huntington, Ind.
Within the first four years of her service there she helped consolidate two small schools. She feels this experience will prove invaluable when tackling the consolidation in the Sheboygan schools.
“Huntington, Ind. gave me some background in working with teachers and families and parishes,” Sr. Betty said.
After her tenure in Indiana, Sr. Betty returned to the Milwaukee area and taught fourth grade and junior high at St. Mary School, Menomonee Falls. She then became a principal at St. Mary Visitation School, Elm Grove,. In her six years there, Sr. Betty helped oversee an increase in enrollment from 250 to more than 400 students.
“It was just a wonderful experience,” she said.
It’s an experience she hopes she can repeat in Sheboygan.
“After hearing what’s going on in Sheboygan I thought it could be a place that could really be exciting.”
“And I am excited, because of what I think has been an extremely dedicated, faithful expression of what the mission of the parishes really hold and that is the faith formation of their children and the continuation of existing academic excellence,” she said. “It’s very humbling to be invited to bring this dream forward.”
One of the things that excites Sr. Betty most is being able to work with children again.
“Being an educator is a passion for me,” she said. “When I get around kids I just love it! It’s really a delight to see the creativity, imagination, joy – it just engenders a great deal of joy in me.”
Sr. Betty said the most important thing she can do to help smooth the transition is to listen.
“I will need to do a lot of deep listening. Everyone comes with their own story. Bringing that forward and trying to be sensitive and bring people together is really a great part of this new job,” she said.
And she thinks one of the most important things the parents and students at her new school can do is to give her the gift of time.
“Obviously it will take time for people to trust me and trust what’s going on. My hope is that with all the work that has already been done to engage people they will just see that continue to unfold into a school that they can really put their roots into,” she said.
Sr. Betty has a definitive idea about the tone she would like to set at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“One of the banners for the new school reads: ‘Faith based education is our soul purpose.’
This is the reason for this new school: to raise children with faith, hope and joy who will be the future leaders of our community and world. I want to set a tone of unity in the diversity from which we live,” she said. “We can unify around our one faith and trust in a God who deeply loves us and wants us to be a witness for him, wherever we are. That is the gift that a Catholic education can provide for families raising children today and the community they live in.”