Determined and joyful.
That’s how Dr. Erin Vader sums up her approach to Catholic education.
“I set my mind to things and do everything I can to see them to fruition — and I like to have a good time while I’m doing it,” stated Dr. Vader, newly-appointed superintendent of Catholic schools for the Jefferson City diocese.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight appointed Dr. Vader under the unanimous recommendation of a diocesan search committee.
She will begin on May 1.
“Her wealth of experience in Catholic education and her mission-based leadership is certain to ensure that our students are equipped to be the next generation of Catholic innovators, community-builders and holy men and women,” said Bishop McKnight.
Dr. Vader comes to Missouri from the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, where she grew up Catholic, attended Catholic schools and served for the past 24 years in roles pertaining to Catholic education.
She is currently the Fort Worth diocese’s coordinator for schools advancement.
“My first priority has always been the students,” she stated. “I’m eager to build on the Jefferson City diocese’s very strong foundation of forming young people to be critical thinkers, lifelong learners and servant leaders who want to make the world a better place for everyone.”
She previously served as president or principal of three Catholic schools and taught at two additional Catholic schools.
She has served as an accreditation chair for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Education Department.
For three years, she was president of Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, from which she, her parents and her two sisters had graduated.
There, she facilitated donations and pledges of more than $30 million while stabilizing enrollment as the school changed over from more than 60 years of Marianist leadership to lay leadership.
She holds a doctorate and a master’s degree, both in education leadership, from Texas Wesleyan University, along with a Catholic School Leadership Certificate from the University of Dallas and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Joy of the Gospel
Dr. Vader said she’s eager to assist Bishop McKnight, the pastors, the religious, the administrators, teachers and families of the diocese in promoting a spirituality and ethic of gratitude and active discipleship.
“Bishop McKnight’s vision of Catholic stewardship and his work to facilitate our churches and schools as places where pastors and laity work together to create communities of compassion and mercy, speaks to me as a Catholic and as an educator,” Dr. Vader said.
She is convinced that God wants all of His people to be cheerful givers and stewards.
“He wants us to come to Him with joy!” she said. “We’re supposed to be models of Christ for the children, and isn’t that what we want them to know about the Lord — that He welcomes us with joy and compassion and mercy?”
A life of learning
Dr. Vader said her parents, Pat and Judy Vader, instilled in their children a strong sense of Catholic missionary discipleship.
“It was always about service and about recognizing that we have been given much through the grace of God and that it was up to us to help other people with what we have been given,” she said.
She studied English in college but didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation.
Her mother and her high school English teacher both encouraged her to apply for teaching positions in Catholic schools.
“And now I can’t imagine not working with kids and with teachers who work with kids,” she said. “It’s the best!”
To lead and serve
Dr. Vader’s first principal, Clarice Peninger, recognized leadership potential in her and served as a mentor.
A few years later, Dr. Vader became a teaching principal at a small Catholic school.
“That’s when you start learning how to walk the line between being Church and taking care of business,” she said.
She never stopped listening and learning and asking questions.
“Being open to asking for help and talking to people who knew more than I did — that was the best thing in the world,” she said.
She frequently turned to God and His saints for help.
“I found a lot of strength through prayer — a LOT of prayer,” she said. “St. Jude is a very good friend of mine.”
One of the schools she led was in the inner-city, where most of the students were poor and had access to few opportunities.
Keeping the school going was always a challenge, and it eventually had to close.
“That was the hardest dose of reality,” said Dr. Vader.
She did what she could to help the families find other Catholic schools to send their children to. She then entrusted them to the intercession of the school’s patroness, Our Mother of Mercy.
“Even so, I’m still trying to come up with ways in my head to save it,” she acknowledged.
Serving as president of her alma mater and then thriving in a diocesan role could have been enough.
But Dr. Vader began to sense that God was calling her to take on more responsibility, even if it meant moving far away.
A colleague she met at a conference told her about several dioceses that were looking for a school superintendent.
Visiting the Jefferson City diocese’s website (diojeffcity.org) filled her with excitement.
“Everything about being stronger together and the idea of building a diocesan pastoral plan that is all about reaching out and welcoming people — all of that speaks to me at the level of my soul,” she said.
She was also impressed by a renewed commitment to stewardship and the diocese’s long-standing practice of having all parishioners support their Catholic schools through a tithe rather than tuition.
“You want that kind of buy-in and ownership from all parishioners when it comes to educating children and forming them in the faith,” she said.
Her resolve solidified when she interviewed with Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, the diocese’s vicar general and chairman of the search committee, and Interim School Superintendent Kenya Fuemmeler.
Also serving on the search committee were: Cheryl Hertfelder, the diocese’s human-resources director; Father Michael Quinn, pastor of Holy Family parish in Hannibal; Debbie Reinkemeyer, principal of Holy Family School in Freeburg and Sacred Heart School in Rich Fountain; and Dr. Aaron Vitt, a member of St. Pius X parish in Moberly, who is superintendent of the Paris R-II School District.
Partners in Mission (partnersinmission.com), a nationally recognized organization that provides advancement and leadership services for Catholic education, coordinated the search.
When Bishop McKnight told Dr. Vader the search committee had recommended her unanimously, she felt like the “Holy Spirit was knocking at the door.”
As she told her parents when she applied, “this is the first position I have read about where my interest and excitement about the possibility is bigger than the terror I feel about moving away.”
“By our love”
Dr. Vader is looking forward to working with the principals of the diocese’s 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools.
“I’ve heard about how dedicated the administrators and staffs are at the schools,” she said. “I’ve been told how collaborative they are and committed to helping each other succeed.”
She called to mind an old Catholic lyric: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
“I can’t tell you what an ideal Catholic school looks like, but I can tell you how it feels,” she said. “It feels welcoming and loving and open to whomever comes into the school.
“You feel the excitement of the students about what their learning,” she said. “You see the excitement on the faces of the teachers about what they are teaching.
“You feel a dynamic that impresses upon you that this is a positive place, that this is a safe place,” she said. “And above all else, you feel what it’s like to have people modeling Christ for one another.”
It’s about working together as disciples with a common mission of forming children into strong Catholic Christians.
“It’s a type of environment you have to experience in order to understand,” she said. “And I want all of the families and all of the kids to experience it.”
Dr. Vader is grateful to all the people who have helped her reach this point in her career.
They include her parents and her sisters; the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur (ssmnwestern.com) who taught her in school; Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth; and her first principal, who encouraged her and helped cultivate her leadership skills.
“That’s part of what anyone in administration is called to do,” said Dr. Vader. “You have to grow that next generation of leaders.”
As difficult as it will be to leave the family, friends and coworkers she has known for most of her life, Dr. Vader is excited to embark on a new adventure.
“For as far away as Jefferson City is from Fort Worth, and as different as some of the aspects of the Jefferson City diocese are from the diocese I’m in now, it still feels familiar and comfortable,” she said.
“The people I’ve already met are some of the warmest, most helpful, positive people I’ve encountered in a long time,” she stated. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be difficult to call my new diocese home.”
Dr. Vader asks for prayers for courage and wisdom.
She is fond of sharing with children and adults her three favorite Bible verses:
•“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
•Psalm 139, especially, “You formed my inmost being; You knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works!” (13-14)
•“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
She frequently calls on the saints — including St. Peter and St. Oscar Romero — to pray with her and inspire her by their example.
“St. Oscar Romero’s fight for social justice for the most vulnerable speaks very clearly to me,” she said. “St. Peter exhibits such good intentions and such human failures, yet he never stops trying to do better.”
“Their stories give us all hope!” she said.