Catholic Courier

Posted: August 1, 2016

Courier photo by Mike Crupi

Stephen Oberst, longtime principal at St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, retired at the end of June.

Principal's temporary role lasted four decades

By Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier

CHILI -- Stephen Oberst had only been teaching at St. Pius Tenth School for three and a half years when his principal resigned suddenly halfway through the year. Oberst, who had taken a few college courses on school administration, was asked to step in and fill the position for six weeks until a replacement was found.

Apparently, the search for a replacement took nearly four decades.

Oberst retired at the end of July and relinquished his long-held position to St. Pius Tenth's new principal, Daniel Pitnell.

A Rochester native, Oberst said he never set out to become an elementary-school principal.

"It was really one of those things that fell into place," he told the Catholic Courier.

Oberst attended Rochester's St. Ambrose School as a child. After graduating from the parochial school he enrolled at Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit, where his history teacher inspired him to become an educator.

"I saw that how he taught inspired this excitement in class and I said, 'I want to do that,'" Oberst recalled.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from SUNY Brockport and soon began teaching seventh- and eighth-grade history at St. Pius Tenth. He said he's not exactly sure why he was tapped to fill the school's temporary principal position more than 37 years ago, but the role was a good fit.

"I've been at St. Pius my entire career," Oberst said. "I haven't really felt this was a job. This was part of my life, and I'm truly blessed because the number of days I didn't want to come here I could probably count on one hand and have fingers left."

The people he's worked with have made the past four decades memorable and fulfilling, said Oberst, who during his tenure at the school has worked for four diocesan bishops, six pastors of St. Pius Tenth Parish, 13 diocesan superintendents, and 335 faculty and staff members at the school.

"I'm inspired by the 335 individuals I call colleagues past and present," Oberst said. "I've just really been part of an extended family. I'm an extremely blessed person."

The members of Oberst's St. Pius Tenth family have named the school's library after their longtime leader, and in June they surprised him with a retirement celebration in the school gym.

"It must be time to go, because they had the entire school over in the gym and I didn't hear it," Oberst said with a laugh.

All jokes aside, Oberst said the time is right for him to retire for a variety of reasons. His wife, Betty, recently retired, and the couple is looking forward to spending more time with their children and traveling, and already have booked a European cruise on the Rhine River.

While Oberst is ready to embrace a slower pace, he's not ready to completely leave the field of education. He is certified by the National Association of Elementary School Principals to be a principal mentor, and during the 2015-16 school year he mentored three principals at elementary schools within the Diocese of Rochester. He plans to increase his involvement with the diocesan mentoring program and work with five principals during the 2016-17 school year.

Oberst is passionate about mentoring because he's benefitted from the wisdom of several mentors of his own over the years, including Sister of Mercy Edwardine Weaver, Sister of St. Joseph Janice Morgan and the late Sister Roberta Tierney. Oberst said Sister Tierney, a School Sister of Notre Dame and former superintendent of diocesan schools, once told him something that became his guiding philosophy.

"She said the teaching profession is a wonderful profession, but being a Catholic-school teacher is something more because not only is it a profession, but in some ways it's a vocation," Oberst said.

He took those words to heart and frequently thanked parents for entrusting their children -- their greatest gifts from God -- to St. Pius Tenth's faculty and staff. He understood the sacrifices many parents made in order to send their children to Catholic schools and believed he and his staff were responsible for more than simply educating their students.

"We should nurture them as if they were our own children," he said.