In photo above, principal Kristen Mendonsa with Father Carlo Tejano, left, and Father Arbel Cabasagan, at St. Joseph School in Auburn.
With 35 Catholic elementary schools throughout the Diocese of Sacramento, observers see varied histories, founders, missions, timelines and locations.
Yet, all schools share a commitment to collaboration, the common thread that nurtures and bears fruit. Pastors and principals work together knowing the gifts of the entire community come from above – and come to fruition more readily – when they are united as co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard.
Here Catholic Herald magazine explores newer pastor-principal collaborative teams and highlights how working together from the onset of their leadership relationships creates the synergies so desired among families who choose Catholic schools.
St. Thomas the Apostle School, Oroville
“Collaboration is such an important thing in the Church,” says Father German Ramos, parochial administrator of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Oroville and wholehearted pastoral leader for the parish school. He refers generally to collaboration among brother priests, parishioners and all co-workers, but he particularly stresses the importance of collaborative work with Catholic school leaders, students and parents who are the first and primary educators of their children.
“We believe in the importance of Catholic education,” Father German says with conviction, promising “we will do our best” to deliver an excellent academic education that also challenges students to be good people and good Christians.
Principal Kelly Floyd agrees, clearly pleased to have Father German as a friend and collaborator.
“Father Ramos is such a pleasure to work with,” she confirms, emphasizing “he’s enthusiastic, supportive and full of energy.”
Both Kelly and Father German are new in their roles. Kelly was appointed principal last summer having served as vice principal while also teaching at the school for 11 years. Father German’s move to the parish became effective July 1, 2022.
The small, close-knit parish and school community exude faith and perennial hope regardless of turnover, the effects of the pandemic and the tumult of the neighboring Camp fire of 2018 which rallied their service. The school enrollment of 110 students includes students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.
Kelly does not hesitate to express “how blessed” she feels to be serving as principal, although she admits no previous aspirations for the role. She also cannot imagine her work without Father German.
“He is our embodiment of Christ, he is our shepherd,” she explains, affirming that his visibility and availability reinforce the Catholicity of the school and everything that it upholds. “He is doing a great job of leading us,” she adds, citing how “our parents notice and they are appreciative and excited” that he is here and engaged.
To facilitate their collaboration, Kelly and Father German meet weekly.
“That meeting is important,” Kelly says, describing it as casual but vitally necessary. “It’s a check-in with each other,” she explains, noting how the first order of business is to “ask how we’re each doing.” The meetings naturally segue into business items – sometimes unique or new topics and sometimes extended discussions related to any one of a number of meetings they both attend over the course of a month for both the parish and school.
“I think the meetings are quintessentially important,” Father German concurs. “We talk about the immediate needs of our community” and inevitably conversations address the very real administrative matters of a 21st-century school. He alludes to matters of staffing, volunteers and compliance with diocesan regulations for safe environment, operations and financial management.
Father German also sees his collaboration with Kelly as fostering awareness of the priesthood and the Church.
“I am passionate about my ministry as a priest,” he affirms, connecting it to his desire to inspire vocations. Father German hears confessions weekly for the students and has cultivated the altar server ministry, meeting with altar servers twice monthly to instill a love for the Mass.
“I love my priesthood,” he says, with obvious hope that young students may find that same joy in a personal vocation someday.
“His personality and reverence for the Mass have elevated our experience,” Kelly mentions, also underscoring how Father German’s presence in the classroom further heightens how students encounter Christ in their faith.
“He is in the classroom twice a week,” she says, grateful for his willing commitment to teaching junior high confirmation preparation. Kelly commends Father German’s involvement in the school and larger community and his vision for “a ministry of presence” which he deems synonymous with collaboration.
Likewise, Father German commends Kelly. “I’m very happy she is principal,” he says, describing her as “also a wonderful mother of 12 children, caring and committed to God, the Church and its teachings. Kelly’s children range in age from five months to 24 years and all are “St. Thomas graduates with the exception of the current and future students,” she says of her family which includes triplets, adding “I am truly blessed!”
St. Joseph School, Auburn
“Collaboration means that each one of us is given a gift that must be carried in the ministry of the Church,” says Father Carlo Tejano, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Auburn since 2019. He is deeply invested in helping people discover their gifts, both in the parish and the school, to the point of writing his master of divinity thesis on this topic.
“It is important for the family to understand that Catholic education is not just about a good education,” he insists. Catholic schools help root families with their faith so they may “grasp the teachings of the Catholic Church” and become capable of sharing and reinforcing the faith with their children.
As Father Carlo builds a collaborative relationship with principal Kristen Mendonsa, these thoughts guide him as one of two pastors engaged with St. Joseph School. Father Arbel Cabasagan, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish since 2021, also supports Kristen and the school. The parish is adjacent to the school grounds and he is onsite frequently.
“I think open communication and humility are the most important factors,” Father Arbel suggests, offering Kristen additional perspectives as he commends the virtues of collaboration.
Kristen became principal of the school with 232 students last summer after more than 20 years of teaching there. Her own twin daughters graduated from St. Joseph School and are sophomores at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. She never imagined being principal of the TK through eighth grade school, but easily settled into the role recognizing the gifts she could bring.
“I have a great understanding and appreciation for the teachers,” she explains with an authentic will to serve the whole community. She also sees how the physical locations of the parishes influence the school culture and says, “my biggest goal is unification” in the sense of unified spirit in the larger Auburn Catholic community.
“Involvement of our pastors is so important to support unity,” she says of collaborating with Fathers Carlo and Arbel. She views her collaborative relationship with each priest as an opportunity to model joy and reconnect families in a post-pandemic world.
Kristen maintains regular communication with both pastors, citing phone calls, emails and periodic meetings to address any managerial or operational matters.
She also values both priests’ regular presence on campus “making sure everything is faith-centered,” and attentive to the Church and its mission. Both priests share in celebrating weekly Mass with students followed by visits to the classrooms.
Their preaching styles and personable natures engage the students in different ways, too, giving the students a glimpse of their priestly gifts and blessing them twice. Father Carlo asks questions and encourages children to respond and participate. He gives them rosaries instilling curiosity and devotion. Father Arbel invites classes to collect canned goods and bring them forth during the offertory for later distribution to Auburn’s needy. He thanks the children for their service and generosity.
“The greatest benefit to our collaborative relationship is the development of our students’ spiritual and liturgical practices,” says Father Arbel of the enthusiasm growing within them. “I want them to feel and understand that I am approachable and available for any of their questions.”
Kristen also invites the pastors to “everything” and indicates plans for vocations presentations, feast day celebrations and other activities that complement educational programs or evangelize the community.
Father Carlo looks forward to the feast of St. Joseph on March 19. Plans are underway for Mass at St. Joseph with students participating in the liturgy. An auction and dinner event will follow with goals to raise funds to provide two Smartboards for the classrooms.
He also hopes to organize the renowned basketball event which brings Filipino priests to the court to compete with students in good fun. “It is a wonderful time,” he assures, as they “bring the joy of being a priest” to the realm of everyday sports play and friendship.
Father Arbel envisions outreach to engage more students in the music ministry. He started a ukulele class with 13 students enrolled.
The roots of collaboration – and faith – run deep, and the fruits are plentiful.
About St. Thomas the Apostle School in Oroville at https://stschool.net.
About St. Joseph School in Auburn at https://saintjosephauburn.org