When Sister Dolores Ann Stein, RSM, agreed to meet Father Elmer Schmidt for dinner one night in 1984, she had no idea the get-together would lead to her first Catholic-school administrative position — one that has now lasted nearly a quarter-century.
"I was warmly welcomed by the total community. I was actively involved in parish life as well. It’s been a wonderful 23 years," she said. "I had no desire to go anyplace else."
Sister Stein, 70, retired as principal of St. Ann School July 15. As of press time July 26, a replacement had not yet been announced.
A number of tributes have been held in recent weeks for Sister Stein — from her teachers, to other Catholic-school principals, to local public schools for her overall contributions to education in the Hornell area.
"She goes way beyond just being principal. Her commitment to the parish and community cannot be overstated," said Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish.
Born and raised in Webster, Sister Stein attended Holy Trinity parish and school and Our Lady of Mercy High School. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1955; received her bachelor’s degree from Marywood College in Scranton, Pa.; and earned her master’s degree and administration certification from SUNY College at Albany.
She taught for three years at St. Andrew School in Rochester and two more at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Rochester. Her past 41 years have all been spent in the Southern Tier. Sister Stein taught for two years at St. Mary School in Corning, then logged 16 years at Elmira Notre Dame High School where she taught business and served on the faculty advisory board.
Sister Stein said she had briefly considered school administration, but never strongly pursued it because she was quite content at Notre Dame. Then she received a call in 1984 from Father Schmidt, the longtime pastor of St. Ann Parish who died this past Jan. 24.
"Father Schmidt wanted to know what I was doing on a Friday night, and if I could meet him for a fish fry," she recalled. "In the course of the meal he said, ‘Sister, my principal is moving to Rochester. Would you ever consider coming to Hornell?’ I said I’d better pray about it."
She came to Hornell and never left. Some of her initiatives have been introducing Spanish to grades 5-8; combining upper levels into two-grade classes (5-6 and 7-8); and staying on the cutting edge of education in computer technology.
"Ten years ago I said technology is extremely important," she said. "I looked very closely at what government funds I could use and earmarked that money for technology. We now have a computer lab of 34 up-to-date, ready-to-go computers. We’re very ready for the 21st century."
St. Ann School has enjoyed a 140-year history but faced declining enrollment in recent years. So Sister Stein, who had originally intended to retire in 2006, shelved her plans for a year, helping lead a school initiative that assessed such crucial areas as fiscal projections, development and communication. The payoff is reflected in the 120 students (grades pre-kindergarten through 8) registered for 2007-08, compared to 109 this past school year.
Sister Stein said she has worked with "three very good, very supportive pastors" during her tenure — Father Schmidt, Father James Jaeger and now Father Van Durme. This support is crucial since St. Ann is the only Catholic-school option for young people for many miles around.
"They’re the future of our church. If we don’t provide Catholic identity, faith and instruction to them, then where’s our church going to be in the future?" she remarked.
Now, however, Sister Stein is ready to pass the torch and finally gets to enjoy her retirement.
"I have asked the (Mercy) congregation for a year to ‘be,’ and not to have to ‘do,’" she said with a laugh. Sister Stein plans to visit family in other parts of the country and also plans to "get back into crafts, sewing — things I didn’t have time to do." She also might become more involved in parish ministry or the Cursillo movement, a longtime love of hers.
"I know that some ministry or calling will benefit from her excellent care and passion," Father Van Durme said.
Among the many tributes to Sister Stein were a service held June 21 at St. Ann School, in which a DVD yearbook was dedicated to her; and a Mass and reception on June 24 at St. Ann Church that was attended by many of Sister Stein’s family and friends. The hugs and other expressions of sentiment have been nonstop as of late, leaving Sister Stein fairly overwhelmed.
"The things that’s touching is not just the cards, but the notes and the letters that are inside them," she said. "It will take me time to read all that. They’re beautiful, very touching."
"We don’t always know the impact we have on people’s lives," she added. "It’s humbling but validating."