When the doors to Sacred Heart Catholic School opened last week to a new academic year, Dr. Jeremiah Russell was on hand to greet students as the institution’s new principal.
Jeremiah takes the reins from Charlie Maniscalco, who retired in June after 12 years as the school’s top administrator.
When Jeremiah was first approached about taking the principal-ship, he didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. At the time, he was an assistant professor at Jacksonville State University. “I had worked for over a decade to be a professor,” he said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to leave behind.”
But the more others persisted, the less Jeremiah resisted.
“I strongly believe in Catholic education and saw an opportunity to strengthen our school,” he said. “But ultimately, I took the job because I believed God was calling me to do it.”
The fact that his daughters attend the school didn’t dissuade him, either. “I look forward to running a school where my children attend,” he said. “Being able to go to mass with them and knowing they’re safe are all things that make me excited about the upcoming years.”
But if his kids think they’ll get special treatment because their father is the principal, they’re going to be very disappointed. “We have discussed it several times,” he said. “They know that when we get out of the car in the morning, I’m no longer ‘Dad’ but ‘Dr. Russell.’”
If his children attended a different school, however, his commitment to Sacred Heart would be the same. “I intend to work just as hard as if they weren’t here and treat every child at the school as if they were my own,” he said.
For all of his professional life, Jeremiah has worked with older, more mature students — those who can tie their own shoes, anyway.
“I really haven’t been in a K-12 environment since I was a K-12 student myself,” he said.
When it comes to handling discipline issues, he will draw on his own experience as a father. “I will be both fair and firm,” he said. He considers it to be a great opportunity to discuss gospel values. “Discipline shouldn’t be viewed as merely punishment, but as an avenue for growth.”
In addition to a new principal, Sacred Heart is also welcoming a new priest, Rev. Charley Alookaran. Jeremiah has never worked alongside a priest before, and Father Charley has never pastored a parish that had a school. “We’re both working from a blank slate,” Jeremiah said. “We have the opportunity to develop that relationship together.”
Jeremiah is aware of concerns that non-Catholic parents may have about sending their children to a Catholic school. He is in a unique position, however, to answer questions from Protestant parents because he used to be Protestant himself. And not just any Protestant, mind you, but an ordained Baptist minister with a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. (It is one of three master’s he holds, in addition to his doctorate from Louisiana State University in political philosophy.)
While there are theological differences between Catholics and Protestants, Jeremiah points out that there are many areas of agreement, and that’s where he believes the conversation should begin.
“Parents should not be surprised, however, that when they send their children to a Catholic school, it is going to be Catholic,” he said. In addition to the academic curriculum, students are taught Catholic theology, attend weekly mass and learn Catholic prayers.
“Though we are unashamedly Catholic, we do not actively convert students,” Jeremiah said. “As a matter of fact, half of our faculty and student population is non-Catholic.”
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.