Two retiring Catholic school principals in Omaha remember when classrooms bulged with baby boomers from big families.
“In my first year of teaching in 1973,” said Paulette Rourke of St. Cecilia Elementary, “every student in my fifth-grade class was from a family of at least five children. I was amazed. Some families had 10, 12 or 13.”
Joyce Gubbels started teaching at St. Pius X in 1969, when enrollment exceeded 1,500, more than double the number today.
“We had 40 to 45 in a room,” she said, “with the old runner desks.”
Well into the fifth decade at their schools, Gubbels and Rourke are preparing to leave next month.
“They have impacted generations of families,” said Patrick Slattery, superintendent of schools for the Omaha Archdiocese. “They are committed and dedicated and so well-respected.”
Rourke, who grew up in Omaha and graduated from Creighton University, is completing 44 years at St. Cecilia, nine as principal.
Gubbels, from McLean in northeast Nebraska, graduated from the College of St. Mary in Omaha. She is finishing 46 years at what is now called St. Pius X-St. Leo, including 35 as principal. (She also spent two years elsewhere.)
The principals could have drawn higher salaries in public schools but believe in the religious mission of the Catholic education system.
“There are good public schools in Omaha,” Gubbels said. “We can do something they can’t, which is to have our faith-life permeate our day.”
Both principals said they admire families who make a financial priority of paying for Catholic school tuition.
Elementary school tuition is about $2,700 a year, plus fees, for students whose families are members of the two schools’ parishes. It’s more for those who are not parishioners.
Whether parish members or not — and whether Catholic or not — families can qualify for need-based assistance.
Fortunately, the principals said, many people are willing to “invest” in Catholic education, with its additional emphasis on, as Rourke said, “faith, morals and spiritual development.”
That investment gets steeper in archdiocesan high schools, where tuition ranges from $10,000 to $12,000 a year.
Also departing this year is Superintendent Slattery, a Connecticut native who announced in March that he is taking a leadership role with a Baltimore-based network of Catholic secondary schools. He previously was president and principal of Omaha Skutt Catholic High School and principal of St. Matthew Elementary in Bellevue.
Gubbels and Rourke will be missed, he said, but he noted that the archdiocese — in partnership with Creighton University — has more than 40 teachers in training to become administrators.
Replacing Gubbels will be Cory Sepich, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul. Taking over for Rourke will be Julia Pick, a science teacher at Omaha Marian High School.
Both of the elementary schools losing longtime leaders are east of 72nd Street, in older sections of Omaha.
Though enrollment isn’t what it was when Catholic families typically had lots more kids, the retiring principals are heartened by recent statistics showing that Omaha archdiocesan schools overall are growing.
St. Pius-St. Leo, near 69th and Blondo Streets, increased its enrollment slightly this year to 707. St. Cecilia, at 39th and Webster Streets, has held enrollment steady in recent years at about 320.
Partly because of its location near downtown and the midtown University of Nebraska Medical Center, where some parents work, St. Cecilia pupils come from 30 ZIP codes.
Year-end honors days, music events and graduation have kept everyone busy, and the principals said they haven’t had a lot of time to ponder what lies ahead, except to spend more time with their husbands and families.
Doug Rourke works for the League of Human Dignity, helping people with disabilities. Luvern Gubbels, a former principal at the old Holy Name High School, retired two years ago after commuting for 19 years on Mondays and Fridays as superintendent of schools for the Des Moines Diocese.
Early on, Joyce Gubbels and Paulette Rourke found their callings and stayed for the long haul.
“This was my home for 44 years,” Rourke said. “I will miss the people and the families.”
Gubbels said the future is bright for new leaders: “As long as we maintain excellent schools and stress the Catholic faith, people will come.”