When Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, thinks back on what she wants her legacy to be, it’s a simple thing that reflects the heart of the faith: that she helped the schools grow stronger in their efforts to provide a faith-based environment.
“The main focus that I’ve had, which is less visible but the most meaningful to me, has been my commitment to form our leaders as spiritual leaders for their schools,” Dr. Cepelka said. “I hope I’ve made at least a small impact on developing leaders who see the faith life of their schools as their top priority and who understand that that primary purpose of the Catholic school is to integrate faith with culture.”
Dr. Cepelka announced recently that she will retire at the end of the school year after 12 years in the role.
Talking to educators who worked with her, their views of her legacy largely match Dr. Cepelka’s wishes.
Bonnie Scholz, in her fifth year as head of school at Catholic Central High School in Burlington, said, “She has embodied the words good and faithful servant throughout her career.”
The principal at DSHA High School, Dan Quesnell, used almost the exact same phrasing to describe Dr. Cepelka: “I am happy for Dr. Cepelka and wish her well in retirement. Well done good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of our Lord. I offer prayers of gratitude as she transitions out of her role as superintendent. Dr. Cepelka’s legacy has been as a shepherd of her flock.”
Her retirement will be effective June 30, capping a career of 53 years in Catholic education. Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki appointed her as superintendent in spring 2010.
“Although Kathleen’s leadership and vision will be difficult to replace, this is a tremendous opportunity to build upon her legacy,” Archbishop Listecki said. “Because of Kathleen, we have one of the strongest systems of Catholic Schools in the nation.”
Dr. Cepelka will remain as a consultant on special projects for the archdiocese, particularly in the area of leadership. “Kathleen has been and will continue to be a great asset to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” Archbishop Listecki said.
“Over the past 12 years, there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t felt privileged, humbled and grateful to be serving as the leader of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” said Dr. Cepelka. “Looking ahead, however, I’ve concluded that I’m ready to transition into new ways to serve, and I want to leave this role while I still love it like I do. I also believe that the Catholic schools of the archdiocese deserve to benefit from the fresh perspectives and relevant skills of new leadership.”
Under Dr. Cepelka’s leadership, the archdiocese adopted an innovative and creative approach to models of Catholic education beyond the traditional parish-school model, which has allowed Catholic schools to remain accessible and affordable to families desiring a high-quality Catholic education.
Regional school systems were formed in many areas of the archdiocese, including Racine, Kenosha and Fond du Lac. In addition, Seton Catholic Schools united 11 parish schools in a system reaching underserved populations in the urban areas of Milwaukee County. School enrollment also stabilized and two additional Catholic High Schools were formed.
In addition, Dr. Cepelka oversaw the creation of the Soles Walk for Catholic Education, helped the schools navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, revamped the Exemplary Recognition Program and recently worked on the framework for the schools’ Catholic Social Responsibility document.
She said the COVID pandemic did affect the timing of her retirement. She started thinking about it during the 2019-20 school year.
“I didn’t really want it to be (my last year),” Dr. Cepelka said. “I wasn’t internally ready to give it up, because I loved it so much. I wanted to serve as long as I possibly could. Now I’m at a point where (I know one’s goals are never fully accomplished), but I have the consolation of feeling most of what I was hoping to see come to fruition is either already done or the seeds have been planted. I’m confident that the terrific team in the Office for Schools will continue its exemplary service to all our schools. My staff has been a joy.”
In her first year-plus in the position, Dr. Cepelka made a point to visit every school in the archdiocese, something that laid groundwork for the strong relationships she has had with principals throughout the 10 counties over the last decade. She now oversees the eighth-largest Catholic school system in the nation.
“We’re strong because of our archbishop,” Dr. Cepelka said. “Everything I’ve said here would be impossible without him. We pay attention to the smallest school in the same way that we do to the largest systems. We are a community of Catholic schools. Whether you are in Fond du Lac or Delavan, you are brothers and sisters to each other in this ministry. That contributes to strength.”
Archbishop Listecki has appointed a search committee to conduct a national search with a goal of appointing a new superintendent by May 1. Search committee members include Ellen Bartel, retired president of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee; Fr. Phillip Bogacki, pastor of Christ King Parish, and St. Bernard parishes, Wauwatosa; John Borgen, CEO and president of Catholic Financial Life; Fr. Paul Hartmann, pastor of St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay and St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, and former president of Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha; and Daniel Scholz, president of Cardinal Stritch University.
Bonnie Scholz said Dr. Cepelka’s announcement caught her off-guard.
“Dr. Cepelka has been such a strong leader in her role that I never even considered the possibility of her retirement,” Scholz said. “She has been a bedrock of strength and support that many of us have become accustomed to, so the idea of her leaving is a strange concept. I have been blessed to serve under her leadership, and I know this is an important milestone for her and the archdiocese. She has served the Office of Schools faithfully, and deserves to retire with the gratitude of all of us in Catholic education.”