The essence of Catholic education isn’t in the volume, it’s in the little things. That was the message Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Cepelka shared when welcoming attendees to the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

In her welcome, Dr. Cepelka said, “Tonight, I hope you leave here with a deep appreciation that Catholic education doesn’t just happen in the big picture, it happens school by school, classroom by classroom, teacher by teacher, and student by student.”

The evening shined a light on the many ways the community’s generosity has enhanced each one of the 102 schools in the archdiocese, most notably from the Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students (GIFTS) program that began in 2019. The funds raised last year offered Catholic schools the opportunity to apply for a grant that would support the implementation of new programs in one of four areas: Catholic Identity, Development/Marketing, Educational Innovation, or Project Initiation: Seed Money. Through the generosity of last year’s attendees, 28 schools were given a gift of $5,000 or $10,000 grants awarded by a review panel led by Dr. Cepelka, archdiocesan representatives, and retired educators.

Andy Gaertner, the development director at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said, “This program went far beyond our expectations. We had 65 of our 102 schools apply for our grants and we were able to give them to 28 schools. The impact of these grants was tremendous.”

Continuing with a tradition that Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki began several years ago, the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award was given to a priest, an educator, and a member of the community, all recognized for their devotion to God and the thousands of growing souls whose lives are better because of their hard work.

Fr. Thomas Biersack, pastor at St. Andrew Parish in LeRoy, St. Mary Parish in Mayville, and St. Theresa Parish in Theresa has served Dodge County parishes since 2005 where he has been a champion of rural Catholic education. Every week, Fr. Tom visits students in their classrooms and answers questions about the faith, encouraging them to grow and seek God.

Lauren Beckmann has been the principal at St. Robert School in Shorewood since 2006. She’s served in a variety of leadership capacities and on many committees where her dedication to moving Catholic Education forward, especially in regards to students with special learning needs, has made St. Robert a school that others look to as a model and guide.

William O’Toole has served as the president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life for the past 13 years. The company provides staunch support for Catholic Education, parishes, and Catholic organizations because of his leadership and support.

A surprise award was given to Jerry Topczewski, the archbishop’s chief of staff. Topczewski first served the archdiocese as communications director in 1997 and has been a devoted supporter of Catholic Education and the Catholic faith in Milwaukee ever since. Instrumental in planning the development that led to the creation of Seton Catholic Schools, he has been an invaluable asset to the archdiocese and helped in the creation of many regional networks.

Archbishop Listecki thanked the gathered supporters of Catholic Education and said what a great spirit he felt in the room that night. “Milwaukee is in a different place than almost all of the archdioceses I encounter,” he said. “We have a vision, we have hope, we are looking forward, we’re growing. These are wonderful signs.”

The Archbishop’s involvement in Catholic education began when he was in kindergarten and has continued all his life. He spoke about those early days when his journey was just beginning and he and his best buddy Patrick, graduated from kindergarten. Their mothers were best friends, more like sisters. They took their boys to school every morning and picked them up together in the afternoon, walking the six blocks back home side by side.

After that first year, as the boys looked on toward first grade, they decided they were almost too old to be picked up by their mothers; so they sat them down to convince them that they were big enough to walk the six city blocks home by themselves. The boys wanted independence, and their mothers gave it to them.

After their first day of first grade, they walked outside and were elated to see no trace of their mothers.

Years later, when he was graduating from eighth grade, in that same kitchen, he sat across from his mother, his own cup of coffee in hand, and told her how significant it had been for him that she’d trusted him enough to walk home alone.

Archbishop Listecki laughed as he retold the story of how his and his good friend Patrick’s mother were hiding in alleys, behind cars, and in the doorway of homes, following them the whole way, making sure their boys were all right.

“That’s Catholic education.” Listecki said, “someone always has their eyes on you.”