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Principals overseeing their alma mater

By KATIE LEFEBVRE, Globe staff reporter
(Email Katie)

Christina Peterson has officially come full circle. She started by graduating from Bishop Garrigan High School then taught at Seton Grade School and is now the 7-12 principal at Bishop Garrigan.

Other principals in the diocese have had a similar journey as Peterson, starting as a student and ending up a principal at the same school.

“I hoped that we would be back in the area and my kids could attend Bishop Garrigan Schools,” she said. “I definitely didn’t think about being principal at the high school, though.”

Peterson attended elementary school at St. Michael School in Whittemore, before it closed, and graduated from Bishop Garrigan in 1995. She taught in Des Moines Public Schools and Cedar Falls Community Schools before returning to Bishop Garrigan Schools (Seton campus) two years ago to teach sixth grade. Peterson was named 7-12 principal at Bishop Garrigan in the spring of 2013.

“It is exciting to be back and be part of the strong tradition that Bishop Garrigan Schools has,” she said. “It is a wonderful place because we have great kids and faculty. It is great being in a supportive system where you grew up as part of the tradition.”

As principal, said Peterson, it was nice to come back to a school with the same values still in place that were part of the school when she was growing up. She can now pass those values on to the next generation and to her own children.

“What I believe in is partially because of going to Bishop Garrigan and being part of the Catholic school system,” said Peterson.

She and her husband, Casey, also a 1995 Bishop Garrigan graduate, have two children Molly, a first grader at Seton, and Jenna, who is in 3-year-old preschool.

“Bishop Garrigan schools served me well,” said Peterson, whose daughters will be the third generation in her family to attend Garrigan schools. “All of my aunts and uncles from both my mom’s and dad’s side and my husband graduated from Garrigan as well as his sibling. We have a strong tradition in the Garrigan system. When you see the products of the system and what they grow to do and contribute to society, I knew what I wanted for my own girls.”

Peterson noted many of the teachers at Bishop Garrigan were there when she was a student.

“At first I was nervous,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for those teachers and I think they respect my background and the values I was raised with. There is a lot of mutual respect for the vision of where we want to go and where we have been.”

A privilege

Mike Sweeney began his Catholic education in 1963 at Blessed Sacrament School in Sioux City, the very same school where he is currently the principal, now Holy Cross School.

After attending Blessed Sacrament, he went on to graduate from Bishop Heelan High School in 1976. He then attended Briar Cliff in Sioux City where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1980 and Drake University in Des Moines where he earned a master’s degree in 1990.

Sweeney’s first teaching experience was at Danbury Catholic School in 1980, where he was a teacher for nine years (1980-89) and a coach at Maple Valley High School (1982-1989). He said he was “fortunate” to be hired as the first lay principal at Immaculate Conception-Nativity School in Morningside in 1989. He became principal at Holy Cross in July 2004.

“I never thought I would be back as a principal at the grade school I attended,” said Sweeney. “It is a privilege and an honor to be the principal at Holy Cross School. So many people gave of themselves to be positive examples of our faith and leaders as teachers at Blessed Sacrament and Heelan High School when I was growing up.  From that experience, I have always wanted to give back to Catholic education in the same way.”

When Sweeney was a student, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters and the parish priests were the teachers, which shifted over the years to lay adults. 

“We all have the responsibility to continue to teach the Catholic faith by word and example every day,” he said.   

He and his wife, Julie’s, four children all attend Mater Dei School and Bishop Heelan High School. 

“My parents made Catholic education a priority for my brother, sister and me,” said Sweeney. “I remember talking to Father Victor Ramaeker, former Heelan president, in the fall of 1989, and he shared with me a few words of wisdom – ‘God is our first priority, family is our second priority and (Father smiled) Heelan is our third priority in life.’ That gives us our focus, purpose and direction in our daily lives as Catholics.” 

Never imagined

Lorie Nussbaum, who became principal at Gehlen Catholic Grade School in Le Mars in 1998, was first a student there from 1961-1966 in first through sixth grade.

She attended Le Mars Community School and graduated in 1974. She graduated from Westmar College in Le Mars in 1978 with a degree in Home Economics Education. She completed a master’s in Educational Administration at the University of South Dakota.

“I never imagined I'd have the wonderful opportunity to return to Gehlen Catholic,” said the principal who added she had always wanted to graduate from Gehlen. “I was hired by Father Tom Geelan right out of college for a position as Gehlen Catholic’s Home Arts teacher, a position that was only to be open for one year while the previous teacher took a one year leave of absence. She did not return. I have remained at Gehlen Catholic since.”

Nussbaum taught Home Arts (family and consumer science) for 19 years before moving to the elementary administrative position. She also taught health, seventh and eighth grade exploratories and eighth grade religion during those years. During her first three years as elementary principal, she taught fifth and sixth grade health.

“Being principal seemed like a natural progression, though when I began my teaching career, I never expected to become an administrator,” said Nussbaum. “I am so blessed to be able to have taught students at all grade levels (subbing often in elementary) and to work with teachers at all grade levels as well. I feel God has truly blessed me, allowing me the opportunity to work with so many wonderful priests, sisters, teachers, staff members, school board members, parishioners, parents and, of course, students.”

She said it was because of “my parents and the deep faith of those who taught me, during those formative elementary years, which has allowed me to develop a strong relationship with God and led me on this wonderful journey back to Gehlen Catholic.”

“It is such a pleasure to work with the dedicated individuals and groups whose faith in Catholic education support all that Catholic schools do to prepare the next generation of believers,” said Nussbaum.

Having been a former student and recalling “the positive and great impact” each teacher had on her life as a student, she was driven to create “the same kind of caring, welcoming, challenging and faith-filled environment for learning that I was privileged to have experienced.”

Both of Nussbaum’s children graduated from Gehlen Catholic.

“Catholic education is the gift which keeps giving – giving a future to the Catholic Church, developing the whole child beginning with faith as the core and teaching service to God and others,” she said. “Working with families toward this, there is no better way to develop the deep and lasting gift of faith.”

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