Lucia Gutierrez thought she'd become a Salesian missionary after she retired from Albany High School, where she spent 25 years teaching Spanish.
God had other plans. In September, Ms. Gutierrez was approached by Rev. Robert Longobucco, an old college classmate, about interviewing to become principal at his parish's school, St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Schenectady. She applied and was offered the job.
As she considered this, "people [at a retreat] told me, 'Do what gives you peace,'" Ms. Gutierrez said. She heard a homily on Catholic schools by a priest who said, "That's where they meet Jesus." She later learned he had graduated from St. Kateri's.
Now, after about a month at the helm of the nursery-through-fifth-grade school, Ms. Gutierrez boasts that "I can talk about God. I feel liberated. In public school, I couldn't do that."
The new principal has been spending extra time at work. She recalled serving as a night school principal at Albany High for troubled students - a program that had a home school coordinator and a guidance counselor, while St. Kateri's administrative staff consists of the principal and an assistant.
The retired principal of Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School in Schenectady, Ninette Kondratowicz, served as interim principal before Ms. Gutierrez started and will also continue assisting for a while.
Ms. Gutierrez has already mediated conflicts between small students, dealt with a parent signing a child out without informing officials, and helped a mother asking to find Father Longobucco for a family emergency.
She's learning the differences between the high-school students she once worked with and the elementary grades she leads now: "They're so little and so precious and so fragile," she said of St. Kateri's students. "Their imagination is amazing. They're so intelligent. With teenagers, [sometimes] you have to use mind games to get them to comply."
Relating to needy
Ms. Gutierrez often rewarded her 3,300 high-schoolers with candy or amusement park tickets. She preached to them about turning their lives around. She surreptitiously gave out faith-related books to students dealing with tough social or family situations.
"Some of the population [at St. Kateri's] faces the same challenges," she said, noting that 55 percent of the students participate in the reduced-price lunch program. The school has a clothing bin for students in need; she's looking into other services the school might provide.
Ms. Gutierrez was raised in the Dominican Republic. She remembers living in a concrete and wood building with a tin roof. Her mother came to the United States with Ms. Gutierrez's brothers when Ms. Gutierrez was 13 and later arranged for her to emigrate, too - against her father's will, since he worried his girls would get pregnant or waste their lives.
Instead, Ms. Gutierrez attended a bilingual high school in Brooklyn and spent extra time working to learn English outside of class. She graduated eighth out of about 200 students.
"I worked hard," she said. "I used to go to church to school to home. When my sister and I got home, one of us had to clean and the other had to cook. I always wanted to go to college [and] be a teacher. I used to line up my sister and friends and teach them."
Teaching as ministry
She earned a bachelor's and then a master's degree in Spanish education from The University at Albany, then a master's in education from The College of Saint Rose.
Teaching, she said, has been a fulfilling career. "You don't only teach about subject matter; you teach about life. I'd rather tell them how life is to get them motivated to get their education. You need to touch their hearts before you touch their minds."
As a child in the Dominican Republic, Ms. Gutierrez attended daily Mass and Catholic school, spending break times in adoration of the Eucharist. In New York, she only went to weekend Masses and felt disconnected from her faith. A charismatic retreat later changed that: "God gave me healing," she said.
She filled her life with ministries, spending 17 years in the Albany Diocese teaching religious education and five years leading a youth ministry group. She lectors and leads prayer meetings at her parish, St. Anthony's in Schenectady; she's even been hosting the meetings in her home since the church was damaged by a fire.
Ms. Gutierrez believes her involvement with the Residents Encounter Christ prison ministry helps inmates "get to know God.
"Once you have a personal encounter with God, your life is not the same," she said. "The younger guys, I treat them like my children. The older ones I treat like my brothers."
The new principal hopes to continue many of her ministries, even now: "They say if you want to get something done, you give it to the busiest person to do. God gives you the time."
She also hopes to grow St. Kateri's enrollment of about 320 students, turn a nearby convent into classrooms and a meeting room, hire an art teacher and increase the school's Hispanic population. She wants to, "with the help of the Holy Spirit, guide the school where God wants it to be guided."