The Scandals at St. Gertrude the Great

West Chester, Ohio

The Full Documented Story

 

November 21, 2009

The Founding and the Foundering

A History of St. Gertrude the Great School

by Timothy A. Duff

 

Given recent events centering around St. Gertrude the Great School, I believe it to be for the common good to add my public testimony. I suppose I am qualified to do so because, with help from some other parishioners, I founded the school.

 What I will do in this article is to give a history of SGGS from its inception until I resigned as Principal in Nov. 1998.

            I hereby attest that all the information in this article is true to the best of my knowledge. Those who know me (or have seen me recently) know that there is a lot of weight behind my testimony.

Aug. 1986 – Aug. 1991

            I attended  my first traditional Mass in June, 1986 in Powers Lake, ND. That August Eileen and I decided definitely to leave the Novus Ordo. We travelled 2 ½ hours one way from Bloomington, IN to St. Gertrude’s every Sunday and Holy Day for a year before moving to Cincinnati to take my first teaching job at St. Gertrude Academy under Fr. Jenkins. I had completed a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education (Indiana University, 1987) and truly desired to spend my entire career in traditional Catholic education. Being certified in Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, I felt I could add some expertise and enthusiasm in these core academic subjects.

            While St. Gertrude’s proved a wonderful parish in which to worship Our Lord, one thing always puzzled us. Often when a child would cry during his sermon, (then) Fr. Dolan would stop his sermon and scowl at the “offending” parent until s/he took the child out. After we joined the choir in 1987 we noticed this look was often seconded (and very effectively, I might add) by the choir director.

            Many parents were scandalized by this harsh behavior toward children. It became apparent, after much observation, that it seemed Fr. Dolan just did not like children. Many, many parents shared this view.

            I was still teaching at the Academy in August of 1989 when Fr. Jenkins decided to open a new Mass center. (This is how Immaculate Conception parish started.) The core point of dispute as I saw it was the school, and Fr. Dolan’s unwillingness to do his share of the work in supporting it.

            How do I know this? Around that time Fr. Dolan called me into a meeting and said he would put forth the idea that I be made Principal, and that I could handle stuff like budgets and teachers and books and students, that all he wanted to do was show up, offer Mass, give a sermon, and hear Confessions.

            All of the benefits, none of the responsibilities – that just about sums it up.

            I told Fr. Jenkins after the Aug. 1989 meeting (at 1:30 AM, no less – it was the only time Eileen got sick while carrying Anne Marie) that since I heard nothing that involved schism, heresy, apostasy, or grave scandal, I would continue attending St. Gertrude’s while teaching at the Academy (which, for those who do not know, was located in the Westwood area, over 10 miles from church). That was OK with Fr. Jenkins, at least for the time being. Soon, however, he began having Mass at his chapel on Holy Days, and he expected the faculty of the school to attend. For myself, I always viewed this as working on a Holy Day since there were duties of supervision which qualified as work for me.

            I left the Academy in 1990 when Fr. Jenkins said that he might have to fire me “at any time, for the public good” for what he viewed as my insubordination in refusing to attend his chapel on Holy Days. I obtained a good job teaching at an inner city junior high, a job which I remained at until 1995.

            After the split of ’89 there was a tremendous void in the parish, most notably a scarcity of young couples with families. I truly believed the parish needed a school.

 

“Suffer the little children to come unto Me” (Mark 10:14)

Sept. 1991 – May 1998

            In the fall of 1991, recognizing the need for a school, Mary Popp organized a meeting at St. Gertrude’s for anyone interested in starting a school. I attended, and when doubts were expressed about whether a parish school can work, I distinctly remember saying:

            “It’s not the idea of a school that is the problem, but with those who run them for their own ulterior motives, without the true good of the students and parents in mind.” (This applies in the current situation as well.) I also said that I would not get involved unless all agreed that we would treat each other as adults by sitting down and discussing problems. I had seen too much of what the adversarial model, “us vs. them”, had done in education and life in general.

            One parent interjected: “I’ll put my children in the school if you are the principal.” To which I immediately replied: “I’ll be principal if there’s enough interest.” (Like most of my jokes, that one was borrowed…)

            I went to Fr. Dolan that week and asked permission to begin organizing a school. Although reluctant, he gave tentative permission and told me to keep him informed.

            I began by forming a committee of Mary Popp, Bernie Brueggemann, Bill Schauble, Richard Smith and myself. We decided to form a parent corporation which was necessary to gain IRS tax-exempt status (which I worked on for nearly two years before it was granted). These five people became the first Board of Directors of Holy Family Catholic Education Assoc. Besides giving the school legal status, a main goal was to protect the parish from any liability which might occur. (Little did I know that future leaders would themselves show a particular knack for lie-ability…)

            I’ll never forget that there were only two people who discouraged me from starting the school – Frs. Dolan and Cekada! Fr. Dolan said they tend to “split parishes”. Notice, the school splits the parish, not those who run them. Did schools split Catholic parishes for the past 200 years or so?

            But especially disturbing to me was what Fr. Cekada told me. I’ll never forget it.

            “But Tim, you’ll have to deal with parents!” Kind of like – yuck! – who wants to do that?

            A big concern, of course, was money. Other than continuing to pay for Sr. Gerard’s medical insurance and other expenses, I was told not to expect any money from parish funds. Indeed, this was the case – the only money the school ever received from the parish was a once-a-year Sunday second collection.

            It was decided to start with grades 1-6 and let the school grow slowly and naturally.

The school opened in the basement of St. Gertrude’s in Sept. 1992 with 13 students and two teachers. I hired Bev Peter (now Simpson), a certified teacher, to teach grades 4-6, while Sr. Gerard, an excellent, truly “old school” nun (who once taught 108 first graders in one classroom!) taught grades 1-3.

            For the 1993-94 school year we added grade 7 and kindergarten, taught by my wife Eileen, who is certified in K-3. The future was looking bright.

            For 1994-95 we added grade 8. The school continued to grow.

            From 1992-95 I was acting Principal, although Bp. Dolan always seemed very uncomfortable with that title. I was never interested in the title or honor anyway, only the work. (I think he’s just the opposite.)

Around April of 1995 Bp. Dolan mentioned to me that our lead student, Joe Soli, would be a freshman in high school and that I needed to at least provide Latin instruction for him.  I had been thinking about the possibility of opening a high school, and to that end I contacted our already generous benefactor (Bernie Brueggemann and Bavarian) and asked if he would continue the support, at least until our enrollment could increase to the point that tuition and fundraisers could provide adequate funding (since, as I said, we got no parish funds). He agreed.

It was on Apr. 26, 1995 (Our Lady of Good Counsel!) that my public school district offered me tenure, something I had worked for five years to attain. Desiring to give Catholic education another go, I resigned that very day. Though I would make far less money, and work much harder, I trusted in St. Joseph and believed that my family would not have any significant hardship because of my decision.

I remember how happy I was when the 1995-96 school year began. I was just happy to work in the same building in which Our Lord dwelt.

A storm was coming, however…

Bev got married, and needed to be replaced. I had someone in mind, a professional teacher. I started negotiations, but then Bp. Dolan surprised me by telling me he had decided to hire a nun who had recently been expelled from the CMRI (for insubordination). Her name was Sr. Augusta. I’ll never forget what the bishop told me regarding her:

 “She has problems with male authority.”

Oh great! Just what I wanted to hear!

I was told that she needed my support. Inwardly I abhorred the idea of running a reformatory for a wayward nun.

Before school started I met with Sr. Augusta. I immediately sensed that she adhered to the adversarial model I detested.

My suspicions were realized as soon as problems arose. I heard from her many times in teacher meetings that we needed to provide a strong front against the parents, and that I needed to support the teachers when problems arose.

In one case a parent became irate at not only the treatment his son was accorded (harsh and inappropriate in my judgment as well, but then again, I was only the Principal) but also at the poor academic progress he was making. He tried to meet with Sr., but only got an earful instead. I met with him privately and told him that my hands were basically tied, that I had been told to support sister.

The reason I mention this is that up until Sr. Augusta was hired into the school I felt in general all ran fairly smoothly and problems were dealt with in an adult-like manner. Sr. definitely introduced the adversarial model. It poisoned the school. Even the Bp. seemed to imbibe the poison, as his attitude and dealings with me became more terse, even harsh.

Especially nauseating to me was the constant references to “men vs. women” from Sr. Augusta and, eventually, even from Bp. Dolan. Gee, no one could have predicted that, seeing that Sr. Augusta came into the school with a “problem with male authority”.

By the time Sr. left the school in 1998 the damage had been done. At least she later found happiness. She married her therapist.

 

“Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out thy corn” (Dt. 25:4)

June – November 1998

            By the end of the 1997-98 school year  I was exhausted. My mother had died in May of 1997, and this took a toll on me. But what really began to wear on me was the strained relationship with Bp. Dolan.

            June 19, 1998 was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the end of the school year. (Yes, you read the date right – we were still in school in the 3rd week of June. The bishop insisted we end every year on this feast.) I had been having major troubles sleeping due to the mounting anxieties of being Principal, Teacher, Choir Director, and referee for a wayward nun.

            Because it is an important detail, I need to make it known that I left medical school in my junior year due to the dufficulty I have dealing with a lack of sleep.

            I will never forget that morning of June 19th. I had been up all night, and had not slept well for months. I was completely drained. In tears, I begged Our Lord to give me supernatural strength just to be able to fulfill my duty that day, for after that I would be able to rest up.

            Or so I thought…

            Our Lord, Who said “come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28) had indeed given me the strength, and I got through it.

            Shortly after that, Bp. Dolan dropped the A-bomb. He called me into a meeting and ordered me to revamp the entire curriculum and adopt the curriculum of (then) Fr. Sanborn! I had worked with a half-dozen certified teachers for 7 years putting this curriculum together, but he said he wanted the school to be more like a homeschool, that the teachers would give assignments and oversee the students’ work, but would do less lecturing.

            Instead of the rest I desperately needed, and the absolutely necessary break from work anxieties of any kind, I spent that summer at the computer, and in the car driving back and forth to Michigan, redoing the entire curriculum.

            (And by the way, a little aside here. One thing Bp. Dolan, and some others I have dealt with, do not seem to understand is that teachers are salaried employees, not hourly. Our pay is apportioned over 12 months, though we work for 9 months. This is why teacher salaries are somewhat less than many other professions, a point I have never begrudged, for I didn’t exactly leave medicine and enter the teaching profession in order to make the big bucks. Moreover, teaching is an extremely demanding profession mentally, and even physically, and therefore summer vacation is a necessity to prepare for the next round.)

            By Sept. 1998 I had indeed revamped the entire curriculum, but had all but ruined my health in doing so.

            Even more ominously, in the meeting I had with Bp. Dolan before school started, the first thing he said to me was:

            “Now, what did we decide your title was?” It was clearly meant as an insult.

            I couldn’t believe it. What did that have to do with anything? Besides the fact that I had been listed as Principal in school correspondence for years! (It reminded me of a comment he made to me one time in a meeting after the choir the past Sunday had sounded particularly good: “What does a choir director do other than wave his arms around?”. This is what so many have experienced from him – years of dedication repaid by insults.)

            Later, I would find out what he was doing.

            When the feast of Christ the King came up, I was in a chronically anxious state. I remember how I could not control my anxiety when I was directing choir, afraid of any slight mistake. For those who do not know, the very last thing a choir director should do is to have anxiety, for it causes the singers to tighten up, thus ruining pitch and volume.

            That week in our routine meeting about choir, Bp. Dolan commented how the choir was not good at all, that we were shouting, and that the women in particular were “screechy”.

            I told him that we were working hard, but he responded with this gem:

Tim – I’m a utilitarian. All I care about is results.”

            Read that again. Can you imagine Christ, or Our Lady, ever saying that?

            The following weekend was 40 Hours. After an exhausting Friday night opening ceremony, there was no rest that Saturday since he had made it a school day (or, as Bp. Dolan once told me when I complained how exhausted I was, “Well, Tim, you know what they say --there’s no rest for the wicked”).

            I somehow managed to get up Saturday morning and get through the High Mass, though by this time I was almost non-functional. At lunch, the kids were in the basement classroom eating, and I was nearly in tears. I picked up the intercom and called Bp. Dolan in his office and told him that I just could not go on.

            His response? In quite a strict voice he said tersely:

            “You will stay until 3:00 and finish out the day.”

            He came down a bit later. I remember there was some food on the classroom floor, and the kids were somewhat rambunctious.  I looked at him, trying to find some compassion. He just looked at me. I’ll never forget the look in his eye. No compassion at all. “Finish out the day.”

            By the time I got home I was non-functional. I called the former choir director and asked if she would sub for me the next day (Sunday). She agreed, and for that I am grateful.

            I told the Bp. Sunday evening that I needed a few days off. He told me to put myself under a doctor’s care and to do what the doctor says.

            By Wednesday, I felt well enough to go to the doctor. He said I had an anxiety disorder and that he could order medical rest. He put me on medication.

            I realized at that point that I could no longer function as Principal, that I had to resign in order to recover my health and be able to provide for my family. I went from the doctor’s office to a pay phone and called Bp. Dolan, resigning as Principal. I later gave him a short note of resignation. It ended with these words:

            “It’s your school. Run it!”

            That same Wednesday, trying to take the doctor’s advice and get more exercise, I was out jogging (I had been quite athletic as a youth). My heart began pounding. I called Dr. Coomaraswamy, who was a true hero of mine and a tremendous help to me during this horrific time. He told me that I needed to go the ER since I might be having a heart attack. Thank God it was not that, but for the first time in many, many months I got a good night’s sleep because after much pleading they gave me medicine to knock me out.

            I was released on Thursday. When I got home, I asked Eileen to please call the Bp. and explain to him my condition, since I feel there was no rapport left.

            What he told her will shock you.

            Eileen called up Bp. Dolan and said she wanted to talk about my condition.

            Bp. Dolan was courteous at first, saying that indeed he wanted to hear Eileen’s take on the situation. So he asked her why she thought I was going through such health problems.

            Eileen said: “Well, Tim needed rest this past summer, and it certainly did not help when you ordered him to change the entire curriculum.” (As a teacher, she could understand this better than most.)

            Bp. Dolan fell silent for a moment. He then said, rather tersely:

            “You’ll have to trust me on this one. We’ve broken him down and we’ll build him back up again.”

            (By “we” he certainly did not mean he and Eileen…).

            When Eileen told me this, I realized I could no longer work for him.

            I finished out the year, and took a job teaching for the same district (and Principal) I had before I left in 1995. St. Joseph always takes care of those who trust in him.

            I will add one detail. I found it rather humorous that in late May of 1999, before I left the school altogether, he told me he was trying to piece together some early history of the school.

            He asked me what the status of the school was after the split in ’89. I told him that Sr. Gerard had tutored a few homeschooled children in the basement on occasion.

            From that, he spun the revisionist history that, somehow (in his mind), the parish really did have a school between 1989 and 1992.

            I chuckled.

Mr. Timothy A. Duff