Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki greets attendees at the Catholic Schools Dinner, held Tuesday, March 5, at the Baird Center. (Photo by Meg Huenink)

It’s the biggest pep rally for Catholic schools held in the Milwaukee area all year.

Fittingly, many of the more than 700 attendees of the 2024 Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner were decked out in the colors and spiritwear of their preferred Catholic schools as they gathered in the ballroom of downtown Milwaukee’s Baird Center on Tuesday, March 5.

Archdiocese of Milwaukee Superintendent of Catholic Schools Ed Foy called those present “a reflection of the widespread love and passion that is shared for the Catholic schools of the archdiocese.”

“You are adding your voice to the chorus of Catholic school parents, students, teachers and alumni that preach the good news,” he said. “That is Catholic education. Now more than ever, it is critically important that all Catholics boldly and proudly proclaim the unique success that is found in our schools.”

His sentiments were echoed by the evening’s keynote speaker, Tim Hanley, Keyes Dean of the Marquette University College of Business Administration, whose speech touched on themes of gratitude for the ways that Catholic education not only prepared him for a successful career in business but encircled him in communities that “helped shape me.”

“I see so many of my favorite Catholics in the room, as is always the case in the Catholic Schools Dinner,” said Hanley, who has also served on the Archdiocese School Commission and on the boards of directors for Catholic Memorial High School and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

In his remarks during the evening’s program, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki called for “intentional” Catholicism in today’s Catholic education.

“I’ve said this for a long time,” he said. “We have to make sure that what we’re doing is presenting to the public that which is the best that we can offer and fulfilling our Lord Jesus Christ’s mandate to make sure that what we do is spreading the faith in a very particular way.”

The event happened one week before Archbishop Listecki offered his retirement letter to Pope Francis on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Following Archbishop Listecki’s remarks, Paula John, President of the Erica P. John Fund, took to the stage to announce a $500,000 gift to Seton Catholic Schools in honor of Archbishop Listecki’s legacy in Catholic education, along with a challenge to others present that evening to support the Seton mission. John Borgen, President and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and co-chair of this year’s Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner with his wife Katie, followed up that pledge with a $50,000 donation from Catholic Financial Life.

“Archbishop Listecki, as our shepherd, you have been a tireless advocate for our schools,” said Borgen. “You’ll be remembered for many, many things. Undoubtedly, your leadership during challenging times is one of them, but I would submit that your passion, your vision, your advocacy for your belief in and your commitment to Catholic education is also a hallmark of your legacy. On behalf of your flock, I say thank you.”

The Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner is also an important fundraiser for the GIFTS Grants program, which provides seed money for innovative educational initiatives that benefit the 26,000 students of the 101 schools within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

A slideshow depicting examples of programs funded by GIFTS Grants — a new playground and green space at Holy Family Parish School in Whitefish Bay, the expansion of early childhood education at St. Rita Parish School in Racine, a STEM and robotics lab at St. Leonard in Muskego, and more — were shown on two screens at the front of the ballroom as attendees enjoyed dinner.

Borgen also announced that, in honor of the archbishop’s upcoming birthday, Catholic Financial Life was issuing a $25,000 challenge to help the GIFTS Grants program raise a record amount of money that evening.

Thanks to the funds raised at the Catholic Schools Dinner, the archdiocese will be able to distribute more than $200,000 in grants this coming spring.

Community leaders honored with Seton awards

For the past several years, the Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner has also featured the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Awards, which recognize a priest, an educator and a community partner who have served Catholic schools in an exemplary way.

This year, honorees included Fr. Paul Hartmann, Associate General Secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; Joan Schlaefer, Principal at St. Matthew Parish School in Campbellsport; and Dr. Scott and Mary Ellen Stanek, community and philanthropic leaders in the Milwaukee area.

Schlaefer told the Catholic Herald that she was “very surprised and beyond honored” to receive this recognition.

Schlaefer is a 1980 graduate of St. Matthew and a product of Catholic education from elementary through graduate school. She began teaching at her alma mater in 1997 and became the principal one year later. “My favorite thing about working in Catholic Education is serving others,” she said. “The little things we do make the biggest difference. Our Catholic faith teaches us to serve others and put the needs of others before our own, with respect and dignity towards all. If we can do that, we have done our job.”

Mary Ellen and Scott Stanek met on the campus of Marquette University as undergraduates, and service to Catholic education has been a priority throughout their lives together. Mary Ellen Stanek, who currently serves as managing director of Robert W. Baird and Co. as well as founder and co-chief investment officer of Baird Advisors, was the first woman in Marquette history to chair the university’s board (2006-09) during her tenure as a trustee from 1999 until 2013. Dr. Scott Stanek has practiced dentistry for more than 40 years, operating his own practice on Milwaukee’s South Side. The Staneks serve as national co-chairs of Marquette’s historic Time to Rise philanthropic campaign, which saw donor participation hit a record high, raising more than $770 million.

“Both of us, along with everyone here tonight, want to give every child the opportunity to receive a Catholic education,” said Dr. Stanek upon receiving the award. “We look back on our experience in Catholic schools and being educated for people, for others — it makes us whole. We try to live our personal and professional life in the faith of God, and our Catholic education is where it all began.”

Fr. Hartmann was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1994, and for much of his career has served in Catholic school settings. From 2008-17, he was the president of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, his alma mater.

“Catholic education is profoundly important to the soul of the person, the Church and the world,” Fr. Hartmann told the Catholic Herald in an email prior to the dinner. “Only insofar as we entrust ourselves to Christ’s presence in all three do we grow to yearn for more. To act on that yearning in our Catholic School fulfills the age-old maxim ‘Love to learn and learn to love.’”

“Many schools, both secular and private, aim to educate,” he added. “Some schools of faith strive to form. The best, the most truly Catholic schools, set out to save the soul.”