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SALT LAKE CITY — For 140 years, Utah's Catholic schools have played an important role in educating thousands of the state's children. This year, Mark Longe is bringing a new kind of leadership to the Catholic school system.
"Welcome back Mr. Longe," is the greeting the new superintendent of Utah's Catholic schools receives as he visits classrooms at St. Vincent's Catholic Elementary School. Longe was the principal there for almost two decades.
"I prayed about it and thought about it and it was probably time for me after 20 years," says Longe about his decision to accept the challenge of being the first lay leader of Utah's Catholic schools. Those schools have traditionally been led by priests or nuns, but Longe says, "We just don't have that many people going into religious life anymore."
Sister Catherine Kamphaus led the state's Catholic schools through a period of growth and change. "So, when I started it was a thriving school system, but it's changed," says Sister Catherine. It has changed from a system of 13 schools serving 3,500 students in 1998 to 16 schools with a population of 5,400 students today.
But the schools are still part of a tight knit community. "I used to call the elementary school that I was at a small town in a big city because it becomes the neighborhood of those children," says Longe.
Longe, whose office as superintendent is in a quiet building near the Cathedral of the Madeleine, knows that he'll "need to get out and get a kid fix regularly." He will also want to check in with school principals like Gary Green who took over for Longe at St. Vincent's.
Green says, "It was harder than I thought." In fact, a big challenge facing Longe will be finding and developing leaders throughout the diocese. "So, that when we have openings in our administrative positions, we'll have people ready to step in that are trained and confident and competent," says Longe.
The kids at St. Vincent's already "love" their new principal. It's a part of the job that Green didn't expect. "The kids just, they tend to automatically love you. I didn't do anything and they just came to the school and they love me," says Green.
Love and respect are part of the Catholic tradition of educating the whole child. It is a tradition that Longe will carry into the future. He says, "It's our hope that our students when they leave us will have a real good sense of others and not just self."
During a visit to Judge Memorial High School, Longe chats with a former St. Vincent's student who is now in high school. He asks what the best part of high school at Judge is? She suggests that it is the sense of community that makes it easy to get involved and make lots of friends.
New Judge Memorial principal Patrick Lambert knows the importance of the Catholic school community in Utah. Lambert was a Judge Bulldog as a teenager. "Being able to help kids not only academically achieve but socially, physically, spiritually. All of these things we're recognizing as incredibly important," says Lambert.
Catholic schools have become important to children of all faiths. Twenty-seven percent of Catholic school students are not Catholic, and Longe says the goal is "not" to convert them but to show, "This is how we build community and this is how we model Christ for others."
It is a model that Longe will use to guide Utah's Catholic schools through another century of educating youths. "The great joy I have is I get to come to all of the schools now," says Longe.
Sister Catherine will stay on as associate superintendent under Longe to help with the transition and to stay busy doing the work she loves. It has been 50 years since she took her vows as a nun and began a career in Catholic education.