by Laurie Ghigliotti
ATCHISON — She was the answer to his prayers.
As pressure mounted on Maur Hill-Mount Academy’s new president Phil Baniewicz to find a new principal for the Atchison Catholic high school, he prayed for the right applicant. But no one seemed forthcoming.
Finally, Baniewicz set aside all the hiring strategies and job requirements he’d had for the candidate, prostrated himself before the tabernacle and prayed, “Lord, I have no principal.”
Three days later, he said, he had his principal: Monica King.
King had taught everything from middle school to college — and for the past four years had served as the secondary science coordinator for the Wichita public schools.
But she wanted back into Catholic education.
“I was looking to get back into Catholic education and it was like coming home,” said the ’86 Benedictine College grad.
King is excited about her new position and the possibilities for the future of the school . . . and the Maur Hill-Mount Academy community is excited about her.
Together with King, and the school’s faculty, staff, board of directors and supporters, Baniewicz hopes to revitalize the school in a difficult economy that has seen flat or dropping enrollment rates in private schools around the country.
The sense of excitement on the Maur Hill-Mount Academy campus runs deep these days, as Baniewicz’s contagious enthusiasm spreads.
Jonathan Mize, chair of the board of directors of the school and a 1987 graduate, is optimistic about the school’s future.
“Phil has some great experience in development,” Mize said. “He’s got the passion and the ideas to take us forward.”
To propel the school into the bright future he envisions, Baniewicz draws from his wide range of experience — as vice president of college relations at Benedictine College, a leader in the youth ministry movement, and a former baseball coach and college instructor.
The new president drew a comparison between the Atchison Catholic college and his high school.
“Benedictine College is successful by embodying the Catholic faith and academic excellence,” Baniewicz said. “Let’s do the same thing here.”
A dual identity
Before he came on board as president, said Baniewicz, the school focused more on “How do we survive?” rather than on “How do we thrive?” He wants the school to focus on how to become a great Catholic school, preparing students for college in a faith-filled environment.
His first step was to make sure that the school looked, felt and smelled like a Catholic prep school.
“I wanted to do what I could to see that we have some real pride in the school — pride in Benedictine tradition and pride in our Catholic faith,” said Baniewicz.
“We’re making sure that symbols of the faith are in place and we want to have prayer throughout the day,” he said. “We went from a once-a-month Mass to all-school Masses once a week, and we offer daily Mass.”
Having a priest on campus every day is a big change, said Baniewicz, made possible by an alum, who donated the funds after Baniewicz mentioned his dream of a priest on campus full time.
Father Jeremy Heppler, OSB, the new chaplain, teaches religion and maintains a visible Benedictine presence on campus.
Alumni like the one that answered his prayer for a full-time chaplain, said Baniewicz, have been key to the school’s survival.
“The schools (Maur Hill and Mount St. Scholastica) have produced incredible alumni and alumnae, and it’s been their commitments that’s kept the school going in difficult times,” Baniewicz said. “It will be those people who will help the school thrive now.”
“These are successful, faith-filled, ethical people who call themselves alumni of Maur Hill-Mount Academy. I want to point at them for our kids and say, ‘This is who you can be.’”
Turning challenges into opportunities
“Part of the difficulty the school has faced is the [negative] view of boarding schools,” Baniewicz said.
“That presents a challenge. But, the international flavor of the school gives us a unique advantage.”
With the current emphasis on global economics, college students want the experience of working with different cultures, Baniewicz said.
“We have that opportunity in this high school,” he said. “Our students can develop relationships with students from other parts of the world right here. We have a global school. That is a cool thing.”
Lisa Klebba, the mother of three Maur Hill-Mount Academy graduates and of a current boarding student, appreciates Baniewicz’s leadership.
“He has listened to parents and to students about residency personnel, the residential facilities, the cafeteria, and the desire for an increased homelike atmosphere for the boarding program,” she said.
Increased communication between the school and parents is also a welcome change.
“It is so important to us as parents of a boarding student to be informed of what is going on at the school and about the residency program in particular,” said Klebba.
Klebba’s husband John is a 1975 graduate of Maur Hill and has had a long association with the school as a student, board member of the Maur Hill Prep School Endowment Association, and as a parent.
When he attended the school, it was staffed mostly by monks from the abbey.
“When the monks were there, the place was Catholic by their very presence,” he said. “Their day-to-day witness to the faith was evident from everything from their clothing to their celebration of the Mass, and no one ever had to question the Catholic mission of the school.”
Today, the faculty is comprised by laypeople with the exception of Father Jeremy.
“However, in spite of the staffing changes, I sense that the Catholic nature of the school under Phil is probably as strong now as it was when I was there, although in a much different way,” he added.
“My observation is that, in the brief time that Phil has been at the school, he has absolutely focused on assuring the fulfillment of the school’s mission to be Catholic and college prep,” he concluded.
Another parent, Marci Lutz, also appreciates the changes made by Baniewicz. The three- day retreat that began the school year especially caught her attention.
“By grouping the entire student body together like that, from freshmen to seniors, the students were able to develop a sense of community, and that is very much in keeping with the Benedictine tradition,” she said.
“Phil has worked very hard to find new teachers and coaches who are very grounded and faith-centered,” Lutz said. “I’ve heard Phil say that he doesn’t want Maur Hill-Mount Academy to be afraid to be Catholic, nor to be afraid to say that we are Catholic. He’s confident in his faith, and I think this can ultimately transfer to the students and teachers in a very positive way.”
With Baniewicz at the helm, enthusiasm and hope for the future of the school run high. But, Baniewicz would be the first to say that the future does not lie in his hands.
“I’ll work my tail off, but I’m leaving it in God’s hands,” he said.