CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If it weren’t for what Deborah Sullivan calls “Catholic guilt,” she might never have become the principal of Charleston Catholic High School.
Sullivan, a Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral parishioner, was asked to take over the church’s high school more than 28 years ago, but she laughed off the idea because she was happy with her job in the Putnam County school system.
Msgr. Edward Sadie, Sacred Heart rector and school president, was impressed with Sullivan and asked her if she would at least join a search committee to help find a principal.
Sullivan agreed, but she didn’t know Sadie would ask her again when the committee couldn’t find a viable candidate.
“It took six to eight months for me to finally say yes,” Sullivan said.
Nearly 30 years later, retirement is a bittersweet occasion for Sullivan. She will step down in June.
“Just as I like to think I have touched lives here, the Charleston Catholic community has touched me very deeply,” she said. “I have been enriched beyond measure during my 28 years here.”
Sullivan, the product of Catholic education herself, spent several years in public schools before returning to faith-based education.
After the University of Virginia graduated her, Sullivan taught in rural Virginia and in cities like Pittsburgh and Rochester, N.Y. She eventually found her home in West Virginia when she took a job in Fayette County schools, and after a few years, she joined the state Department of Education.
Sullivan said coming to Charleston Catholic was a “radical shift” for her because all her teaching and administrative work was in public schools, something she said helped her understand education policies and how schools actually work.
“To do a school right — it takes everything you have,” Sullivan said. “It takes your heart and your soul. It’s a labor of love.”
Sullivan has learned a lot in her time at Charleston Catholic. She said she has found the school to be an “excellent place with remarkable teachers and students.”
Charleston Catholic has teachers and students that come from an eight-county region. Sullivan said some drive more than an hour because they are attracted to the school’s focused academic program and faith development.
When Sullivan became principal, the high school consisted of about 200 seventh through 12th graders. Today, the high school has more than 400 students and includes sixth grade.
Of those 400 students, 55 to 60 percent are Catholic. Sullivan said the rest come from other Christian and non-Christian faiths.
“We aren’t here to convert anyone,” Sullivan said. “We’re here to help each person be the best faith-filled person they can be so they can recognize their own beliefs and share them with others.”
While there is great emphasis on faith, Charleston Catholic also boasts an impressive academic program that “exceeds the standards set by the State of West Virginia.
Much like college students, Charleston Catholic high schoolers have to earn a certain number of credits before they can graduate. While many credits overlap with what public school students do, they are required to take theology classes and meet a yearly community service requirement.
Sullivan said getting through Charleston Catholic takes a lot of rigorous work, but can also be fun. She said graduates go on to be “responsible citizens with generous hearts.”
“The key to having a remarkable academic program is having remarkable teachers who buy into what we stand for,” Sullivan said.
Because Sullivan has confidence in her teachers, she said she could leave “happily.”
She said the school will be in the “more-than-capable” hands of Colleen Hoyer, a former teacher and the assistant principal.
Sullivan said she identified Hoyer as the next principal years ago when she was a sophomore at Charleston Catholic.
She remembers a conversation with Hoyer, in which they joked about her coming back to teach one day. Hoyer went on to the University of Richmond and taught in that area for a few years, but came back to teach at Charleston Catholic. After two years, Sullivan promoted her to assistant principal.
Sullivan said Hoyer has been an understudy of sorts and that she will take the school to the next level.
“The school is in excellent hands,” she said. “I’m excited to see it because my grandchildren will go here someday.”
As for Sullivan, she will keep a close eye on the school and may even lend a hand when it is needed.
“I’m going to be open to possibilities,” she said.
While she has three more months on the job, Sullivan said she is looking forward to the first retired thing she will do: stopping and taking a much-needed and much-deserved breath.
Contact writer Samuel Speciale at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4886. Follow him at twitter.com/wvschools.