By RENEE WEBB
When school closed for the year at Holy Cross School in Sioux City, Principal Mike Sweeney said farewell to the grade school students. But this time, it wasn’t just for summer break.
After 38 years serving in Catholic schools of the diocese, Sweeney retired.
“I feel very grateful, reflecting on the number of years I have been in the Catholic schools. I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” he said. “I would do it all over again.”
A product of Catholic education in Sioux City – Blessed Sacrament Grade School, Bishop Heelan High School and Briar Cliff College – Sweeney began his stint as a Catholic school educator at Danbury Catholic School. He taught science and physical education from 1980 to 1989 in Danbury. During that time, he also utilized his coaching skills at Maple Valley High School from 1982 to 1989, serving as head football coach, assistant baseball and wrestling coach as well as junior high basketball coach.
In 1989, he was hired by Msgr. Roger Augustine and Msgr. Thomas Donahoe as the first lay principal at Immaculate Conception-Nativity School in Sioux City (now Mater Dei School.) The K-8 school had an enrollment of 520 students at the time.
“I was working on my administrator’s degree. When I got hired on, I only had a few hours left to finish up,” he noted. The following spring, Sweeny earned a master’s in administration from Drake University.
Sweeney’s time at Immaculate Conception began a 29-year stint of serving as a principal in the Bishop Heelan Catholic School System. In 2004, he was named principal of Holy Cross School.
“It has been a privilege and honor to work with Danbury Catholic School and Bishop Heelan Catholic Schools,” said Sweeney, who is a parishioner at Mater Dei Parish in Sioux City.
The principal explained that his own Catholic school experience in grade school and high school – teachers, administrators – reinforced the fact that “your faith is part of your life and God is No. 1. Even as a student it was very important.”
Other things that drew him to Catholic education were the family atmosphere, faith formation, quality academics and the desire to help students become their best.
“There were a lot of people that gave of their time and talent who didn’t get paid much but they believed in it,” said Sweeney, who noted he has always been impressed with parents who believe in Catholic education. “Parents are very involved and the faculty/staff I’ve had over the years have been people who believe in Catholic education and believe in helping each student strive to do the best they can.”
He noted in elementary school, they plant a lot of seeds to help shape faith beliefs and standards.
Sweeney can also be included in the parent category as he and his wife Julie sent all four of their children – Robert, Kristin, Tim and Bryce – through Bishop Heelan Catholic Schools.
Part of his philosophy of education was shaped by his mentor from his college years at Briar Cliff; Dr. Leo Frommelt taught “we are in education for the kids, not for ourselves.”
During his tenure in Catholic schools, he noted he has worked with several diocesan superintendents including Father Andrew Hoffmann, Father Patrick O’Kane, Sister Joan Stoffel, Kevin Vickery, Dr. Dan Ryan and most recently, Patty Lansink.
“I was very fortunate to work with a number of priests and nuns – I learned so much from them and other principals in the diocese,” he said. “I would like to thank all of the school boards, parents, parishioners and students for their support of Catholic education.”
Through the years, Sweeney had many positive experiences including participating in weekly school Masses and serving as a Eucharistic minister for the liturgies.
“I used to get a kick out of when they would come into the principal’s office and I would tell them right away, ‘You’re not here because you are in trouble.’ Then, they would relax right away because they always think when they are called to the principal’s office they are in trouble, but 99 percent of the time they are not,’” Sweeney said.
While the last day of school was May 25, Sweeney wrapped up his end of the year work June 7.
The retired principal anticipates that he will most miss the “day-to-day interactions with students, faculty/staff, parents along with priests and religious of the diocese.”