As he retires, Frank Petruccelli's 40-year commitment to Catholic schools lauded
By CECILE SAN AGUSTIN
CLIFTON - From pastors to principals and teachers to diocesan personnel, it is Frank Petruccelli's immense commitment to Catholic school education for 40 years that many of them will remember most about the superintendent of schools who will retire next month.
At the diocesan Schools Office here, a sense of honor to have served in the Catholic school system with Petruccelli was the overwhelming sentiment upon learning of his announcement that he planned to retire in July.
Sister Dorothy Banashak, assistant superintendent of the diocesan schools office, has worked alongside the retiring superintendent for 27 years. "We considered him a visionary leader," she said. "As a Catholic educator, he really is strong in his Catholic faith and not only is he is a spiritual man, he's an excellent role model."
Filippini Sister Marie Antonelli, principal of Holy Spirit School in Pequannock, said, "To me, Frank was an edification to the Catholic Church. He gave his life to Catholic education. He was totally committed to what he was doing."
Whether it was creating groundbreaking initiatives to serve schools better, sending out spiritual e-mails on a bi-weekly basis or leading by example, Petruccelli's commitment continues to allow diocesan Catholic schools to provide not only the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and but also more importantly, creating faith-filled citizens ready to serve others.
Leading by example is shown within his own family where his daughter, Laurie LaGuardia, is the principal at St. Francis School in Haskell, following in her father's footsteps to serve in the diocesan Catholic school system. "He has always been a true inspiration and role model and the very reason I entered Catholic school education," she said. "As a daughter, I am very proud of all that my father has accomplished throughout his career. But as an educator for the Diocese of Paterson, I would say that my feelings go far beyond proud when I reflect upon his 40 years of service to Catholic school education."
Married for 42 years next week to his wife, Ginger, and a parishioner of St. Anthony Parish in Hawthorne, Petruccelli has faith that reflects the work he has performed all these years. Msgr. George Hundt, pastor, said, "His commitment to Catholic education is grounded in his faith to Jesus Christ. His life, his discipleship is centered on the Eucharist, which I believe has energized him for all his work."
Father Paul Manning, diocesan vicar of education and pastor of St. Philip Parish here, said, "Frank feels deeply about every school in the diocese. I know that every decision that Frank has made was with a personal investment in every school."
Msgr. Kieran McHugh, principal/president of Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, recalled meeting Petruccelli in 1975 when he was serving as diocesan assistant superintendent. Msgr. McHugh said, "I think his service is exemplary. Forty-years of selflessly serving the institution of Catholic Schools is commendable."
As Pope John XXIII, like many high schools in the diocese celebrated commencement services last week and this week, the Sparta school's graduation was the 28th consecutive year that Petruccelli had attended. "He was certainly a constant at our school," said Msgr. McHugh.
During Father Manning's time leading Morris Catholic High School in Denville, he recalled having constant contact with Petruccelli. In working with him for three years in the schools office, Father Manning said, "Frank has a thorough knowledge of each and every school, the staff at each school, the educational program, physical layout of each school, the financial situation and the sense of student community."
One school, Petruccelli knows well is Paterson Catholic. In 1968, he started his teaching career in the diocese as an English teacher there and as vice principal of the school serving from 1968 to1976.
Michele Neves, vice principal at Paterson Catholic said, "Frank is the one that actually hired me in 1971." Neves was doing her student teaching there while studying at Seton Hall University in South Orange when she saw an English teaching opening at the new high school. Neves said, "He's played a key role in my career and was just great in helping young teachers develop."
At St. Therese School in Paterson, Deacon Nicholas Varsalona, principal there for 31 years, also came to know Petruccelli when he served in Paterson Catholic. Petruccelli's leadership is a trait that sticks out to Deacon Varsalona.
"He has been one of the most understanding leaders," said Deacon Varsalona. "He is what you can call a true leader. He has involved himself and dedicated himself in serving Catholic schools. There was no limit to how much time he put in. I know he has sacrificed a lot to make Catholic schools more strong and powerful. We all owe a debt of gratitude to him."
Deacon Varsalona is especially grateful for Petruccelli's commitment in initiating the consortiums among the Catholic schools in Paterson and Passaic and in Clifton. This collaboration among these urban areas has allowed the schools to serve students better on an administrative level, according to Deacon Varsalona.
Sister Banashak said, "He had a tremendous sensitivity to the poor. He would listen to the stories of the families in our cities and see the faces of the children and believed they were deserving of a Catholic education."
About her father, LaGuardia added, "He always demonstrated the poise and understanding needed in dealing with today's delicate matters, while remaining focused on the issues at hand. His devotion and belief in the ministry of Catholic schools is undeniable."
"Frank is responsible for giving Catholic schools a voice," said Deacon Varsalona.
Deacon Varsalona and Msgr. McHugh also recalled Petruccelli being a strong advocate for strategic planning. Msgr. McHugh said, "He was always urging us to plan for the future and to think outside the box."
Whether it was working with the pre-k teachers to the high school teachers or the principals of elementary schools or presidents of high schools, according to Sister Banashak, he was hands-on with his work as superintendent and was always there when work needed to be done. She said, "He had an unique gift for motivating people and he would always affirm the principals. He aggressively thought of creative ways to ensure the future of Catholic schools."
Petruccelli would also always support his principals not only with a note of gratitude, but also with a strong affirmation for them because of their work to the Catholic schools, said Sister Banashak.
As Petruccelli writes the next chapter of his life, it was a unanimous response that he will be missed throughout the diocese - though all wished him a happy, healthy and fulfilling retirement.
LaGuardia said, "While my dad's retirement may be considered a bit sad as he steps down from this leadership position, I would rather think about the positive aspects. He possesses a wealth of knowledge and expertise that he can and will continue to share".
She even quipped, "He will have more time to offer his professional advice and experience to me - for free, of course!"
Father Manning said, "His tenure has been marked by tremendous advocacy for the schools. With any challenge facing the schools, he's exhausted every possibility in finding support for them. He has been thorough in trying to find solutions. I expect the schools office will continue those efforts on behalf of the schools."
Sister Banashak, who will serve temporary as superintendent during this transition period, said, "I will serve to continue as Frank would to the goals for the future of the next year in our schools. I am happy to do so whatever I can do."
LaGuardia said, "My dad honestly has a vision and passion for Catholic education that is contagious. He has always been the quintessential professional. Most admirably, his role as superintendent has been more than a job; it has been his life-long ministry. I believe he leaves this position with a legacy of commitment, dedication, and compassion to Catholic school education. I must say my dad truly exemplifies one of his favorite biblical quotes - 'This is what God asks of you, only this.... To act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.' I know my dad, and I know he will continue do just that, even in his retirement."