Janet Orlowski (left) is recognized by Fr. Javier Bustos during a Mass held to honor her on the occasion of her retirement. Orlowski is retiring after working at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic School in Milwaukee for the past 45 years. She has served as the school’s principal for the past 23 years. (Photos by Anne Trautner)

Janet Orlowski, principal of Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Milwaukee, is retiring after serving 45 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal at the school.

“This has been my life. It always felt like home,” Orlowski said.

When Orlowski graduated from college, her first job was teaching second grade at the school. She has stayed there ever since, serving as the school’s principal for the past 23 years.

“Love and charity are service. When you forget yourself and think of others, this is love. Janet is someone who loves Our Lady Queen of Peace,” said Fr. Javier Bustos, pastor of the parish. “We have seen the results of the hard work that Janet has put into the school. She is not just a member, she is a piece of the parish’s history.”

The parish, which dates back to 1948, was named Our Lady Queen of Peace to symbolize peace in the world after World War II. The school was built in 1962.

“The school was begun by religious sisters, and Janet took over from the sisters. That was a big challenge in itself,” Fr. Bustos said. “So, she has been a woman of great challenges. I believe she knew the magnitude of those challenges, and I believe for every challenge, she probably had fears, but she grew to those challenges very well and she succeeded.”

One of the challenges Orlowski faced was a declining school enrollment about seven or eight years ago. When Fr. Bustos arrived at the parish, he told Orlowski they needed to do something to increase enrollment.

“Father, I’ll do anything. You just tell me,” Orlowski replied.

“Let’s work as a team,” Fr. Bustos instructed.

That’s exactly what they did.

To help the cause, Fr. Bustos’ sister, who is a parishioner and leader in the community, said to Orlowski, “I believe very much in the power of prayer. Let’s ask St. Rita for a miracle.”

So, Orlowski began praying to St. Rita every day with the teachers to ask for God’s intervention. Enrollment at the school started increasing.

In 2017, the school had 142 students. Today, there are 203 students at the school, which has a maximum capacity of about 220. There are waiting lists for some of the grades.

“The miracle has happened. Enrollment keeps growing,” Fr. Bustos said.

Another challenge has been adapting to changes in the parish’s demographics. When Orlowski started working at Our Lady Queen of Peace, the community was mainly Polish. Over the years, the population changed, and now the parish includes people of Filipino, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan, Colombian and Polish descent. The vast majority of parishioners are from Mexico and speak Spanish.

“Janet doesn’t speak Spanish, but she has a multi-ethnic and welcoming heart, and that is the most important thing,” Fr. Bustos said. “She has been an instrument of peace, an instrument of harmony in the community. She always made an effort to reach out to everyone. Even though she doesn’t speak Spanish, she comes to Mass in Spanish with her team to promote the school.”

The school community appreciates all she has done.

“Janet, you have been a constant source of support and guidance to all of us throughout your time here. You have led with compassion and kindness, always putting the needs of the students and staff first. You have created a culture of excellence and joy that will continue to be a legacy for years to come,” Stacy Chesick, who teaches eighth grade at the school, said during a special Mass that was celebrated in May in honor of Orlowski’s retirement.

Chesick noted that Orlowski provided students with a safe and nurturing environment to learn and grow, both academically and spiritually.

“Your warm smile and kind words that greet them every morning leaves each student knowing they are important. They are part of our community and they are loved,” Chesick said.

Zaw Sumlut, a student at the school, echoed those sentiments. He said he would always remember how Orlowski congratulated the students when they did well and how she motivated them to do their best. When they made a mistake, she gave them an opportunity to do better.

“Thank you for being there every day for us. Thank you for all your dedication and love toward us. Thank you for all these years,” Zaw said in a speech to Orlowski.

Orlowski appreciates having been able to serve the community for the past 45 years.

“I can’t believe it has been that long. So many times before this year, people have asked me, ‘Why do you stay there? There are so many other things and opportunities,’” Orlowski said.

Then, Orlowski looked around the church.

“This is why I stay,” she said, motioning to all those gathered. “Because of all the love I felt over all these years. I am grateful to my family, my staff, my students and especially my pastors, who have helped me to grow during my time here.”