Being True to My Faith

This article was posted on: June 19, 2023

Jill aligns her prayer life with her love of teaching

“I love working with kids. I love supporting the staff,” said Jill Fortin, the new principal at St. John the Baptist Primary School in Marshfield. “We have an amazing staff, who are very devoted to student learning. The best part is the faith building they do as a staff, which is fantastic. I love working in a Catholic school because of that.”

Although Jill started as principal at St. John’s School in July of 2022, she is no stranger to teaching and education. She taught art in the Medford public school system for 20 years. An accomplished artist, Jill still maintains her art studio in Medford where she specializes in pottery. “I love art and love not only teaching students art but also giving them an appreciation for how art can enrich their lives.”

Jill credits her desire to become a teacher to the example of her mother, who was a special education teacher for 18 years. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to teach kids with special needs, and she was very good at it,” said Jill. “I spent a lot of time with my mom at her school. Her biggest thing was teaching kids how to read. She was very patient. Several of her former students, who are now adults, would say things like, ‘Your mom was amazing,’ and ‘Your mom taught me how to read.’

“When I decided to go to college, I did not know exactly why I liked art. I thought about maybe photography, and I did get a photography minor. And then I had these visions of what it would be like to teach kids art. It smacked me across the side of my head—you should just be an art teacher.”

Religious Compass

Jill grew up in a nondenominational family. Her parents never pushed one religion, but they did believe in God. “It wasn’t really until adulthood that I started searching for the ‘right form’ of Christianity. I loved Jesus and I knew that I was a Christian, but I did not know what direction to go. So, the journey became finding my Catholic Faith.”

Jill’s journey ended after she moved to Medford from Superior, where she went to college to study art. “The moment I stepped foot into Holy Rosary Parish in Medford, I knew this was it,” she recalled. “I reached out to the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] teacher, who happened to be the track coach at the school I worked at. Talking to him and being inspired and wanting to know more, I started taking classes. Before long, I was confirmed. It was during the celebration of the Mass—knowing that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is truly present—Catholicism became real for me.”

My job is to help these little people not only to become better little people, but to become better little Catholic people.”

Not surprisingly, Jill’s favorite saint is St. Angela Merici. St. Angela lived in 15th century Italy and founded the Order of St. Ursula, also known as the Ursuline Sisters. She saw women as significant agents of change in a world longing for love, unity and harmony. She became well-known for her ministry of service to people, especially women, who are marginalized, displaced, poor, orphaned or sick.

Life Skills for Teenage Girls

While teaching in the public school, Jill noticed that something was happening to girls when they were in the sixth or seventh grade. They would lose confidence in themselves, which often resulted in them being mean to each other and breaking each other down. In the spirit of St. Angela, she said, “I felt something needed to be done to help them. I started a weeklong girls’ camp aimed at teaching them mindfulness about the things they are saying and to learn some skills to help them become a better, more well-rounded person, as they become young adults. This was done through a “ropes” course, [an outdoor activity designed to foster team building and individual self-confidence]. It was gratifying to me to see them grow in their self-worth.”

Sometimes, practicing one’s Faith has challenges. In Jill’s case it happened as a result of organizing a charity event at her public school for which she used her artistic skills to make and sell bowls to benefit a local food pantry. Jill said, “The project was called Empty Bowls—Feed My People. It was great because we had high school kids coming to school, even on a Saturday, working with me doing this fund-raising project. I even had my pastor lead a prayer before we started. On Monday morning, my principal called me into the office and said, ‘You can’t [say prayers]. However, that never sat well with me. I realized, in hindsight, that praying was an action that violated public school policy.”

This incident did not dampen Jill’s love for teaching and caring for her students. After being an art teacher for 20 years and absolutely loving it, Jill felt a call by God to be a school principal. She enrolled at Viterbo University and took classes to prepare her for the possibility of being a principal.

New Beginnings

That opportunity came last year when Columbus Catholic Schools in Marshfield was seeking applicants for a principal for St. John the Baptist Primary School. Jill said, “I felt a tapping on my shoulder. Something was saying this is the place that you should be. I really do believe it was God calling me. I interviewed. I enjoyed everything about the process. Jen Edwards was the Columbus Catholic Schools Human Resources person who reached out to me. I got an email from her with the Mission Statement of the school written at the bottom:”

Columbus Catholic Schools are dedicated to excellence in Catholic education, founded in the love of Jesus Christ, and designed to instill in our students faith, knowledge, and a desire to serve others.

“After reading the mission statement, I just thought, ‘This is the place I need to be right now.’ So, while I was still happy being a teacher in the Medford district after 20 years, I told Columbus Catholic Schools, ‘I would like to give being a principal at St. John’s a shot,’ and I was hired.”

Jill admitted that being a teacher at a public high school is different from being the principal of an elementary school. In public school, where there were lots of students, she did not necessarily need to get involved. She did, to some extent, with her kids, particularly the advanced students. After four years, she would get to know their parents, but not on the level of a principal. “High school parents are more hands off,” she said. “The kids are driving; they are more independent.”

“As principal of a Catholic primary school, I notice that parents are very involved with their children and the school,” said Jill. “I greet the children and mom and dad every day. They are making the choice to send them here. Their Faith has gotten them here. It is beautiful.

“My job is to help these little people not only to become better little people, but to become better little Catholic people. This is way different from what I was focused on before, which [was] making students become the best artists they can be. For me, this is an awesome responsibility. Parents are entrusting me with this job. I take this job very seriously, so what we do in teaching our Faith in our religious education classes is very important. When students leave this system, they will really know their Catholic roots. I love that.

“At one time, I was discouraged from praying in school. Now, I am not only able but encouraged to pray with my students. We say a prayer every morning and every afternoon together on our announcement system. It is so enlightening to be able to be just me and to be true to my Catholic Faith.”

Story and photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the May/June 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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