by Jill Ragar Esfeld
ATCHISON — “I think now more than ever we need to provide our kids with a solid cocoon of beauty, truth and goodness.”
With these words Dr. Kathy O’Hara, former superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, summarized the importance of Catholic education.
“Every day, we hear stories of kids with anxiety and despair,” she continued. “I think the best way to help kids through what they face these days is to remind them they have dignity and worth.
“And they have a partner, a helper, in Our Lord, who has created them for a specific purpose.”
O’Hara will be honored at this year’s Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) annual fundraiser, Gaudeamus, as the recipient of the 2019 Michael & Patty Morrisey Angels Among Us Award.
Over her 16-year tenure as superintendent, O’Hara has worked tirelessly to make sure archdiocesan schools are the best — academically and spiritually.
“Catholic schools are schools, so they have to have strong academics,” she said. “But none of that will mean anything if kids don’t understand that they have a real purpose in this world, and that they’re headed for eternity with God.”
The experience of working in the archdiocese has allowed O’Hara to grow in her own faith, and she is grateful for that.
“I have had so many opportunities to meet incredible people, to hear amazing scholars of the faith,” she said. “I would not have had those opportunities had I not been able to serve.”
As she leaves her duties in the capable hands of new superintendent , Dr. Vince Cascone, O’Hara looks forward to spending time with family and living life at a more leisurely pace.
“I’ve had a list of books — mostly books related to the church, classic works of some of the saints,” she said, “and they’ve been stacking up.
“So now I have the opportunity to sit down and do some reading.”
O’Hara also hopes to volunteer with a nonprofit organization that produces audiobooks for schools.
In addition to being superintendent of schools, O’Hara served as a member of the CEF board of directors, working to make sure a Catholic education is within the reach of every family.
“I am a product of Catholic schools through college,” she said. “It was important for [my husband] Jim and me to raise our kids in the faith.
“We wanted them to attend Catholic schools and to have that seamless community between what they were hearing at home and what they were hearing at school.”
O’Hara wants that opportunity for every family in the archdiocese, and that’s why the CEF Gaudeamus event is so important to her.
“It really is a good time,” she said. “People are so inspired, and I think that they have bigger and better things planned this year.”
Gaudeamus has ranked as one of Kansas City’s top ten events for eight consecutive years, according to The Independent: Kansas City’s Journal of Society, and is now ranked among the top five.
St. Benedict School in Atchison will receive the 2019 Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann CEF School of Excellence Award; it will be accepted by school principal Helen Schwinn.
O’Hara had the opportunity to tour St. Benedict recently along with Archbishop Naumann and members of the CEF board and staff.
“Both at my retirement party and then when we were at the school this week,” she said, “I was reflecting on what great leadership we have.”
As superintendent, O’Hara was known to encourage and support the best in faith-based academics, constantly expecting excellence.
“We have lots of ideas that we convey, things that we challenge,” she said. “But for there to be any success, it takes people who want to come along and try to implement those things.
“None of what we saw at St. Benedict would have been there without great leadership and the faculty and staff in the school.”
To prove that point, one of the most inspiring moments at Gaudeamus is when a CEF student speaker takes the stage to share how Catholic education has made a difference in his or her life.
Gaudeamus will finish on a high note when the ballroom is opened up to a dance floor with live music by the Michael Beers band.
“So, I’m looking forward to it,” said O’Hara. “But I also want to make sure everyone knows this is about raising money for scholarships.
“We’ve got to get people there who will help make those dreams a reality and support kids who want to come to Catholic schools.”