This article was posted on: April 20, 2023

Mary Kiefer feels happy and blessed being a teacher and educator

Mary Kiefer fully understands the words of Pope Francis when he described joy as a grace and gift of the Holy Spirit, not just positive emotions or feeling cheerful. It’s cooperation with the Spirit that brings about joy. Mary’s vocation as a teacher and educator in the Catholic school system brings joy to her heart and those around her.

Mary is in her second year as principal of St. Joseph School in Menomonie, but she has been in education for 32 years.

Education is in Mary’s blood. “I was encouraged to be an educator by my dad, who was a high school teacher,” said Mary. “He was dedicated to his profession. He was inspiring and well-liked by his students. He put his best foot forward each day in a humble and Christ-like way.”

Teaching is important and a way of life for Mary’s family. In addition to her dad, her sister and husband, and her brother’s wife are teachers. Another sister was a paraprofessional at the middle school, and her daughter is currently the director of an early childhood academy.

Growing Up

Mary was born in Medford, and her family moved to Ellsworth when she was 4 years old. Kindergarten was not offered at the Catholic school, so she attended kindergarten at the public school in Ellsworth and then attended St. Francis elementary school from first through sixth grade and then attended Ellsworth Public Middle School and High School.

As a child Mary remembers her family being involved in their parish, St. Francis in Ellsworth. “My parents would take us to church every Saturday night,” said Mary. “Our ‘usual’ spot was toward the front of the church on the left side—always. My parents were money counters on Sunday mornings. My dad took Communion to the elderly and homebound parishioners, and for several years, my mom washed and ironed the church laundry. I remember the care she took in getting every hint of lipstick off the purificators, and the precise creases and folding of them. There were a couple of times, when I was older, that Mom and Dad would be gone for a weekend, so I would wash and iron the church laundry. I remember feeling privileged to complete this task for the church.”

Fifth grade students helped set up a Night of Service at St. Joseph School. They made 80 tie blankets and stuffed 310 Christmas stockings with food and trinkets for their food pantry to give to children.

Called to Be a Teacher

As a graduate of UW-River Falls with an education degree, Mary recalled how her Faith played a role in her decision to teach at a Catholic school. She said, “I was looking for a job in the summer of 1991 and needed to find a job close to Ellsworth, because I was getting married in October of that year. The priest at Saint Francis Parish, Father Tom Donaldson called and asked if I would be interested in teaching at Saint Francis School. It took me about 10 seconds to give him a definitive no thank you because I never, for a second, thought of or wanted to teach at a Catholic school. Father Tom asked me to pray about it and I told him I would, but I don’t think I did. About a week later he called back and asked if I wanted the job. Since I hadn’t found another job in a weeks’ time, I did take the job with the intent that I would be there for one year but would find a job somewhere else the following year. Thirty plus years later, I don’t know where I would be or who I would be if God hadn’t changed my heart and had not sent Father Tom to be my guiding light.”

After 18 years at Saint Francis School, Mary felt called to teach somewhere other than her hometown. She found out that there would be a fifth grade teaching position opening up at St. Joseph School in Menomonie because her friend, who was a teacher there, was leaving to teach in Eau Claire. She applied for the position and was accepted.

Two years ago, Mary was offered the position of principal at St. Joseph School. “One would think it was a natural progression for me after being a classroom teacher for so many years, and I knew I didn’t want to leave teaching, but I wanted something different. Never in a million years would I have guessed that the change would be as a principal of a Catholic school. I had been asked on different occasions if I ever had considered being a principal, and like my reaction to Father Donaldson 31 years ago about teaching in a Catholic school, it took me about 10 seconds to say, ‘No thank you, it is not something I would ever want to do.’ But then God, in all His infinite wisdom and love, changed my heart again! I had tremendous support from my husband, Mark, two daughters and sons-in-law, Lauren and Chase, Amy and Scott, as well as my former principal at Saint Francis and other friends and family members.”

Despite her initial reservation at becoming a principal of a Catholic school, Mary has found being principal to be very rewarding. She especially enjoys being a role model for her teachers, inspiring them along their educational and Faith journeys. Other aspects of being head of a Catholic school are leading the school system to excellence, sharing Faith and talking about God every day, providing a positive culture for the school community and the family atmosphere it provides. She especially appreciates the support she receives from Father John Selvamanohar Muthu-Vijayan (Father Mano), the school and parish staff, and St. Joseph Parish. She looks forward to spending time with students at lunch where she has a chance to catch up on exciting things happening in their classrooms and share in all sorts of stories.

First and second graders lead the choir for Friday Mass using various instruments.

Living Joy

Mary’s Faith guides her in her daily interactions with students and faculty at St. Joseph school. She said, “I try to find joy in all circumstances: when I pray, as a lector at my home parish, when I talk to others about my Faith and being a child of God. I strive to be a good, kind, and Godly example to others and to listen to the Spirit as I share my Faith. I am reminded that we are all missionaries, called to be Christ-like.”

In thinking about her life’s journey as a teacher and educator in a Catholic School, Mary has these reflections to share. 

God is in every story, mine, yours, our students and strangers.

Never be surprised in what or why God is calling you to do something. Trust!

My favorite word is joy. I think it’s important to choose joy and find joy in all areas of my life. I have been blessed with great joy and peace in my life.

I am humbled and blessed to be able to model and share my love of God and my Faith with our school community as we build up the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

I find it extraordinary that Jesus wished to be called “Teacher,” and He continues to call teachers like me to carry out His work today.

“I don’t know where I would be or who I would be if God hadn’t changed my heart.” —Mary

I believe with all my heart that teaching or being a principal is not a job for me, but a vocation, one that I hold deep in my heart, one that means joy in my work.

I feel it is an immense blessing and gift to promote joyful Faith not only to our school, but to the world around us.

St. Joseph School is a gem in the Menomonie community. Our caring teachers and staff go above and beyond to ensure that students are loved and cared for. Students learn the skills needed for critical thinking and academic excellence, and above all, to be disciples of Christ and know that they are loved by God.

Mary’s wonderful family is her joy and rock. Their support and love inspires her every day. She also feels deeply blessed by the friends God has gifted her with. In addition to her dad, the wisdom, grace, and love of Father Tom Donaldson and mentor principal Jeanne McCoy were the catalysts for her desire to be a Catholic School teacher and principal. Mary lives by her favorite Scripture verse, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Neh 8:10)

Story by Robert Rogers
Published in the March/April 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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