For The Dialog
EASTON, Md. – Becoming Catholic was nothing David Rath had considered before three years ago, even though he attended both Catholic Mass with his wife and twin children as well as Episcopal services every weekend.
The lifelong Episcopalian was content with his life and his job as headmaster of Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, La.
A series of events led him to change his faith and wind up as president of Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School here. Those events began when a Brazilian cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope.
Soon Rath, along with many Catholics and non-Catholics alike, was enthralled by the man who chose Pope Francis as his name. “I love Pope Francis,” Rath said. “I love his openness, the love he professes.”
Good time to convert
The new pope’s humility and his caring attitude drew Rath toward the faith of his wife and children.
“I just knew that it was a good time for me to convert,” he said.
But he realized that meant he would have to change schools, since it might be awkward for a recently converted Catholic to lead an Episcopal school.
“I had no thoughts, really, about leading a Catholic school,” he said, and figured that he would become an administrator of a non-sectarian private school; he has strong experience in both faith-based and non-sectarian school administration.
Then he saw an ad for Ss. Peter and Paul, where the parish had decided to change its leadership model to a president-principal format.
Just before Rath was to have a phone interview with Easton officials, his father, Norris, died in Hagerstown, Md., where David Rath grew up. David Rath told them he would be in Maryland for his father’s funeral and could get to Easton for an in-person interview. The search committee agreed, and Rath emerged as their favorite for the new position.
“It sure seems like it was God’s plan,” Rath, 48, said of the circumstances that brought him to Easton.
But even God’s plan carries its share of challenges. For Rath, that means:
l helping develop the headmaster-principal’s format at Ss. Peter and Paul’s elementary and high school and working to present them as one school;
l developing an advisory board while learning a new governance system in which the pastor is the ultimate boss and the diocesan schools’ office makes some decisions, such as the school year;
l promoting the school, which includes efforts to increase the high school population;
l fundraising and other marketing efforts;
l working with alumni and possibly forming an alumni council;
l and helping the parish and school communities to see their dependence on one another.
“The parish needs the school, and the school needs the parish,” he said.
On a personal level, it means a temporary separation from his wife of 22 years, Mary-Kay, who remains in Lafayette to sell their house there, and parenting their children, Maureen, who goes by Dolly, and William, sophomores at Ss. Peter and Paul High School.
The president-principal model removes “external relations” from the duties of the principals, which allows them to focus on their primary responsibility, the day-to-day operations of their campuses, Rath said. The president represents the school to the parish and the community, is the school’s chief fundraiser, and is liaison to alumni and the parish.
“I’m sort of the face of the school, spreading the good news about Ss. Peter and Paul School,” Rath said.
One of his biggest challenges will be to increase enrollment at the high school, which has 175 students. While he would eventually like to see an enrollment of 250 to 300, he acknowledges it will take some time just to reach 200 students.
Elementary school enrollment is around 360 students, Rath said.
He relies on his background at Ascension Episcopal to help instill the president concept at Ss. Peter and Paul. Ascension had three campuses with about 800 students.
But accountability differs sharply between Ascension and Ss. Peter and Paul. Ascension had an autonomous advisory board that set general policy and hired and fired the headmaster. Ss. Peter and Paul’s advisory board, which held its first meeting earlier this month, and Rath both report to Father James Nash, pastor.
“If something needs to be decided, I’m used to just doing it,” he said, citing his experience. “Now I have to ask, and I won’t always get a ‘yes.’”
This year is a transition as Rath learns the ins and outs of how Catholic schools operate and works with elementary school principal Connie Webster and high school principal Jim Nemeth.
He considers himself fortunate to remain in a faith-based school and its ability to rely on a common faith and prayer. And he remains in awe of Pope Francis.
“I admire his humility,” Rath said, recalling as an example how the pope traveled in Washington, New York and Philadelphia last September in a Fiat rather than a large SUV. “He lives very simply.”
In doing so, Rath said, Pope Francis lives what he preaches. That example is what led Rath to become Catholic.
“I probably would have remained Episcopalian, if not for Pope Francis,” he said. And he would not have come to Easton to be Ss. Peter and Paul Schools’ first president.