Living the Charism of Elizabeth Ann Seton
By S. Mary Ann Flannery
As soon as her feet hit the floor every morning, Susan (Susie) Gibbons, superintendent of Cincinnati Catholic Schools, says a prayer to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Please don’t give me anything I can’t handle!” Across town, Kathy Ciarla, president of Seton High School, follows her morning prayer with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s invocation: “Today, help me to meet your grace.” Ciarla will say that prayer repeatedly in the high school chapel throughout her day.
Both women share a lifetime of commitment to Catholic education with the charism of their model, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Gibbons runs the fifth largest Catholic school district in the nation with 40,000 students throughout 19 counties and Ciarla navigates the challenges of keeping her school financially healthy and academically thriving for more than 500 young women. Gibbons readily admits she learned the most about education while working at Seton High School for 30 years, the last 13 as principal. She has been superintendent for the last 10 years and was thrilled to see when she arrived that the archdiocesan conference room in the chancery is named for Elizabeth Ann Seton. “Her influence in Cincinnati was profound, from the start of the archdiocese, and certainly the beginnings of the Sisters of Charity, now in Delhi.” She added, “Elizabeth Seton was far ahead of her time and that is something that attracts me very much.
The pandemic gave Gibbons an opportunity to live Elizabeth’s foresight. “Since March 12 of last year, our district planned for every eventuality,” she said. “My goal was to make sure every child was accounted for and had an adult with them when learning from home.” When schools moved to the hybrid system in the fall, Gibbons encouraged principals to make their own decisions as to closings and tracing if they thought these decisions were needed. “We have found that technology is unequal and social interaction is very important. I am very concerned about children in poverty.” Now the Catholic schools in Cincinnati are open with 4,000 teachers doing their best to equalize the outcome of the virus and “move forward to secure funding toward better learning for our children.”
That’s the same mindset of Kathy Ciarla. She graduated from both Seton High School and Mount Saint Joseph University (MSJU), Sisters of Charity sponsored institutions. Gibbons also graduated from MSJU. Ciarla credits Seton principal Karen Klug White, also an alum, and the staff at Seton and its Board for their incredible cooperation and leadership especially during the two most recent challenges: assistance in relocation and acceptance of students from Mercy High School which had closed, and the reorganization of fundraising because of the pandemic. “We now have a monthly raffle. This year’s results are trending up and we are part of Girls Schools Unite with the other five Catholic girls high schools who compete for the highest number of alum to contribute. We achieved the highest this month bringing in more than $100,000.”
Ciarla has no doubt that Elizabeth Ann Seton has put a hand on her shoulder all her life. “I was raised by the Sisters of Charity!” she says laughingly. I attended a Charity grade school, high school, college. My confirmation saint and name is Elizabeth Seton! I have taught all of my children about her.” Ciarla is Seton through and through!
Sister of Charity Kathryn Ann Connelly was constantly on the move during her long career in education. The former elementary school teacher and principal, and later, high school principal, and still later, superintendent of Cincinnati Catholic schools, Connelly was ready for anything in education. She loved it as an “apostolate,” the term used in her early days of assignments. And she never stopped loving it! For Connelly, the attributes of vitality, challenge, and courage in Elizabeth Seton, supported everything she did in education. Gibbons, a student at Alter High School in Dayton when Connelly taught says, “She (Connelly) gave me the mantra, ‘don’t give me anything I can’t handle.’” Connelly also encouraged Ciarla to look forward to ‘meeting her grace’ each day.
Connelly sees Elizabeth Seton as a mover and a shaker! “This is what educators are,” she says, “always moving toward the future, to service, to God, toward the Church.” Elizabeth Seton provided that inspiration. Elizabeth moved with vitality in creating schools for all children regardless of their means. She faced challenges in the effort that would have overcome the average woman, particularly points out Ciarla, “… handling the deaths of her husband and children even as she moved toward a new faith and created the beginning of Catholic schools in this country, and a religious community of vowed women.” Connelly sees Elizabeth Seton as a shaker because she challenged her family and friends to be open to new ways in life. She went face-to-face with Church leaders to secure whatever she needed for her mission. “As an educator,” said Connelly, “I had the opportunity to follow Elizabeth, inviting students, teachers, and schools to step up and out; to welcome change, and always be children of the Church.”
Like S. Kathryn Ann Connelly, Sister of Charity Brenda Busch felt her mission in life was to be a pilgrim. When approached to consider becoming principal of Seton High School, Busch asked to give a year as assistant principal first. And the principal, who became her mentor, was none other than S. Kathryn Ann Connelly! Busch had lots to learn since she was making a giant leap to high school administration after seven years as principal of an elementary school and 10 years before that of teaching on this level. But, she was a pilgrim; she took to it. Immediately, in her year as assistant principal, Busch developed a habit of popping into the chapel at Seton asking for the grace to rely on God whenever she was unsure of something. The practice stayed with her for the rest of her time at Seton. The following year, when Busch became principal, Susie Gibbons became her assistant principal. Throughout this pilgrimage, Busch felt Elizabeth Seton’s reliance on God’s faithfulness and love, just as the saint had done before her.
After Seton, Busch became principal of Holy Family School in Cincinnati for 12 years. “I had learned that a good leader listens so I tried to listen to my staff, parents and students. And I liked rolling up my sleeves to work with them.” She’s convinced that students caught on to the example of their teachers and became centered on serving others. “We had several Sisters on these missions, so there were plenty of examples of St. Elizabeth Ann’s charism at work,” she added.
Today, Busch is retired from education and is a volunteer at WIN, Working in Neighborhoods, an organization that helps create thriving communities through home ownership education, financial, literacy and leadership programs for the underserved. Her sister, Barbara Busch, also a Sister of Charity, and an alum of Seton High School, founded the organization 40 years ago.
All four of these educators can tell marvelous stories of alums from Catholic schools and particularly the schools and diocesan departments where they had served. As Kathy Ciarla says, “When I look out at an audience at a fundraiser or an assembly of supporters, I see alums who are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and of course, moms. I see the effect of Elizabeth Ann Seton in every one of these persons and their contributions to the world.”