Beloved Butler Catholic principal retiring
Sister John Ann Mulhern began her teaching career in 1961, when many of her current students’ grandparents were students themselves.
Now, after educating or serving as principal for thousands of students in the region since then, Mulhern is retiring as principal at Butler Catholic School.
She was assigned to Butler Catholic on July 1, 2003, and said she feels blessed to have served as the school’s leader for 20 years.
“The people here are warm and welcoming,” she said of the school. “The kids are really exciting, loving and cooperative.”
Mulhern said even during rough patches at Butler Catholic over the decades, there was never any doubt that staff, students and parents are a tightly knit family.
“I always find there is that deep, family- and faith-filled atmosphere that is the undercurrent of everything here,” she said.
In her role as principal, and as a teacher in the past, Mulhern has always kept in mind one line from the 1958 drama “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” which starred Ingrid Bergman: “A planned life is a closed life.”
“We try to be open to the Spirit and what He calls us to do,” Mulhern said. “Every day is a day filled with opportunities to grow.”
She has tried to impart that concept to each and every student during her career in Catholic education.
“I am grateful for my time here at Butler Catholic,” Mulhern said. “I’ve enjoyed it and feel very blessed.”
She has made lifelong friends as principal at the school who she plans to keep as the years roll on.
“I hope people, in their contact with me, have been able to grow closer to our provident God,” Mulhern said.
As she prepares to pack up her desk and leave the familiar red brick building on June 30, Mulhern can hearken back to many innovative and educational programs that came to light during her tenure.
For example, in 2004, Butler Catholic Preschool began accepting 3- and 4-year-olds.
The 1949 building has undergone nearly constant upgrades, and the landscaping has been refurbished.
Extracurricular activities like forensics club and garden club and the annual all-school play have been introduced during her time as principal.
“Our motto is that we are called to be the best, most respectful and responsible reflections of Christ,” Mulhern said. “That is our measuring stick in everything we do.”
She credited the outstanding group of teachers she has had the privilege to lead as an inspiration to her as principal.
“They have the heart and the concern of the children in everything they do,” Mulhern said.
She also credited the parents as pillars of the school at every turn.
“They have helped with many programs and supported many fundraisers,” Mulhern said.
The Rev. Kevin Fazio, pastor of All Saints Parish in Butler, and the Rev. Harry Bielewicz, former pastor, also have been very supportive of the school, its students and programs, she said.
Mulhern immediately recalls the specific date of the school’s 50th anniversary, which occurred on Oct. 14, 2019.
A half-century earlier marked the day when St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Michael Catholic schools merged to become Butler Catholic School.
“We are the oldest active, consolidated school in the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” Mulhern said.
Last week, the longtime educator was avoiding contemplating her last day of work.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Mulhern said. “I love what it is that I do, and every ounce of me is here doing what I can to continue to grow the legacy of Butler Catholic,” she said.
After retirement, Mulhern will reside at the mother house on the campus of her order, the Sisters of Divine Providence, in Allison Park.
But don’t expect her to rest on her laurels.
“I’m open to whatever God wants me to do,” Mulhern said. “They say nuns never retire; they just change ministry.”
Julie Truax, administrative assistant at Butler Catholic for the past 18 years, said she will be sad when Mulhern retires.
“I’ll miss her smile and the way she does things around here,” Truax said. “No matter what is going on, it could be a rough day, for example, and she would give you a reason to smile.”
She called working for Mulhern “amazing,” and says she makes it a point to listen to everyone, even if she does not agree with them.
“Whatever decision is made, is made out of sheer respect for and betterment of the school,” Truax said.
She said her boss also had a practice that not only made the students involved laugh out loud, but also the entire office staff.
Each day, two tots from each kindergarten room bring the attendance count to the office.
While she could just accept it with a smile and a “thank you,” Mulhern always gave the students a pair of silly nicknames.
When the students would protest, giggling, that Mulhern had gotten their names wrong, Mulhern would apologize and reverse the nicknames, which always resulted in more giggling.
“That is so special to her and these kids,” Truax said.
She said Mulhern also talks to students as they eat their lunch each day, or converses with them in the hallways.
“She is always here for the kids,” Truax said.
Butler Catholic School currently educates 212 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and 30 children are enrolled in the preschool.