ROCHESTER — When asked how she had learned of the Rochester Diocese’s opening for superintendent of Catholic schools, Sister Elaine Poitras leaned forward excitedly.
“This is my absolutely favorite story,” she said.
Sister Poitras recalled that during the National Catholic Education Association convention in Atlanta this past April, she was approached by more than one person saying she should consider Rochester. This puzzled her because she wasn’t looking for new work, and had never served outside her native New England during a lengthy and distinguished career.
Finally a woman stopped her, saying she’d been looking for Sister Poitras all day — to which she said she replied, “Well, you’ve found me, but who are you?”
The stranger was Dominican Sister Elizabeth Meegan, who was soon to be departing as Rochester’s superintendent.
“She said ‘What are you doing the rest of your life?'” recalled Sister Poitras, a Sister of Holy Cross.
A long talk with Sister Meegan ensued, and Sister Poitras eventually decided to go on an interview. Sister Poitras, 56, got the job and began her position July 25, succeeding Sister Meegan, who left in June following a five-year tenure.
“It was clear to me the day of the interview this was clearly a call (from God). I had a match between what I had to offer and what they were looking for,” Sister Poitras said. “It just feels to me everything moved very, very quickly.”
The new superintendent brings a legacy of progressive thinking to her position.
“I don’t believe in being an educator and being stuck,” she emphasized.
Sister Poitras said Catholic schools always have stressed serving children’s present-day needs, and in 2006 that would mean preparing them to live in a global society. She added that today’s youths are among the first to contend with such moral issues as stem-cell research, euthanasia, terrorism and global violence.
In her opinion, moving with the times in education also means tracking technological advances. On the one hand, she observed, a student is now able to take a cell phone to school and take obscene pictures with it. However, she also embraces the positive aspects of technology.
“I keep up; I’ve always kept up. I was the first one in my community who had e-mail,” she said, noting with a chuckle the skeptical reaction to her decision in 1982 to have computers installed in her school: “People said, ‘and why do we need these things in school?'”
Sister Poitras stressed that the one constant in Catholic education is providing a Christ-centered experience.
“You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said. “The church is only going to be as strong as the people we form in faith.”
Still, she expects to bring some changes to a diocese that saw the closing of five school buildings at the end of the 2004-05 school year. “The reaction to that is kind of a downer, depressing. We have to turn it around,” she said.
In order to achieve such a turnaround, Sister Poitras said she won’t be afraid to think out of the box.
“We don’t have a ton of data to back up new ideas, but we’ve got to try them, and that’s where we’re going,” she said.
For example, she noted that she secured sponsorships so a floundering Catholic school in New Hampshire could be equipped with state-of-the-art laptop computers. She said attendance shot up “immediately,” contending that “donors are more willing to invest in the future rather than just keep you alive.”
Sister Poitras, a native of New Bedford, Mass., proudly noted that she is beginning her 40th year in the Sisters of Holy Cross, having entered the order in 1967. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame College in Manchester, N.H.; her master’s in American history from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.; and her doctorate in educational administration from Boston College.
From 1970-80 she served as a teacher at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., and the Diocese of Fall River, Mass. She was then a principal (1980-84) and associate superintendent of schools (1984-91) in the Diocese of Norwich.
From 1991-97 she studied for her doctorate. From 1997-2001 she was director of curriculum and testing as well as a regional schools director in the Archdiocese of Boston. From 2001-06 she was associate superintendent in the Diocese of Manchester.
She has been highly active in her Sisters of Holy Cross congregation, and is hoping to get back home every so often to stay involved in its activities. A big fan of New England-based sports teams, she quipped that her only disappointment about moving to Rochester is being unable to get Boston Red Sox baseball telecasts. Otherwise she has enjoyed her new home thus far, and looks forward to arriving at work each day in the Pastoral Center’s Department of Catholic Schools.
“The staff is exceptional in this office, every single one. They are such great educators. We share the same vision,” she said.