Father–now Msgr.–Bernard Bourgeois had been teaching part time at Rice Memorial High School for eight years, beginning in 1998. During the last six he also had been pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Waterbury. On the first Sunday of Lent 2006, he received a phone call that changed his life.
The caller had been tasked with asking him if he were interested in being principal of Rice, the South Burlington Catholic high school. "I thought I was being called to be on the search committee! I knew instinctively that I should say yes. So I did," Msgr. Bourgeois recalled. "Before I knew it, (then Burlington) Bishop (Salvatore R.) Matano was announcing to this community that I was to be their next principal."
Since July 1, 2006, Msgr. Bourgeois has served as principal, instituting a voluntary daily Mass at the school, overseeing the revamping of academic departments and spearheading an $8.5 million capital campaign and school renovation.
But now he is preparing for a new assignment.
Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne has appointed Msgr. Bourgeois pastor of Christ the King and Immaculate Heart of Mary parishes in Rutland and St. Patrick's in Wallingford. "I am truly excited about this and look forward to parish ministry once again," he said.
His successor, Sister of Mercy Laura Della Santa, will become principal of Rice on July 1.
When he first became principal, Msgr. Bourgeois took time to observe the community of teachers and students. "It took me time to understand the daily operations of the school. While I knew the teaching staff of the school, I only knew the students whom I had taught," he said. "It was important they know me as principal, a much different role than teacher or chaplain. It was much like starting in a parish. I spent time at games, in classrooms and at meetings observing and learning to understand the community."
Msgr. Bourgeois was accustomed to spending long days at the school; in the winter he often got there in the dark and left in the dark. Arriving by 6:45 a.m. and leaving most days around 6:30 p.m. he'd stay longer if there was a night sporting event.
The greatest hurdles that the principal faced related to finances and enrollment. "Except for its athletic successes, Rice was one of the best kept secrets around here! So I immediately tackled enrollment and marketing," he said.
The school had about 390 students his first year; enrollment for the next school year is expected to be 440 (450 is the identified goal and maximum).
In addition to increasing enrollment, Rice has made "great strides" in the last 10 years, raising the Annual Fund "significantly," Msgr. Bourgeois noted.
Asked about his three greatest accomplishments as principal of Rice, Msgr. Bourgeois pointed to these:
1) He instituted voluntary daily Mass his first year, and it continues. "It goes to the heart and mission of who we are as a Catholic school," he said. While attendance varies, "it is a great way to start the day." The first official words of Rice Memorial High School every day are: "In the name of the Father."
"We begin our day in the Eucharist," he said. "Following that, the Catholic culture imbues the school and all of its life, from academics to athletics and beyond. Faith formation and community service are equal to the traditional academic pursuits of high school."
2) In the last 10 years, every academic department has revamped its programming to be consistent with a Catholic high school of 2016. Rice offers more electives, and technology is at the heart of the teaching and learning process. More than 90 percent of graduates attend college, prepared for college-level work. "We challenge our students to find their full, God-given potential," Msgr. Bourgeois said.
3) In the last few years, Rice raised $8.5 million in a capital campaign, and the school has been extensively upgraded for the first time since it was built in 1959. Updates included work on heating, ventilation and air conditioning; electrical; technology infrastructure; Americans with Disabilities Act compliance; and windows. "The building now has the look and feel of a 2016 high school and will serve many future generations of Rice students," Msgr. Bourgeois said.
His greatest joy as principal has been watching Rice students grow and mature. "It makes me feel good that I have some small part in the human and spiritual formation of these students," he said. "I watch them come in as insecure freshmen and see them snatch up their diplomas as confident young adults four years later. I feel very satisfied in my work when I see students be successful in whatever they're doing. It makes the hours and hours of meetings and whatever else worth it. It's a great place that I believe God has blessed with a marvelous teaching staff dedicated to our mission and other administrators who are deeply committed to their work and our students."
Msgr. Bourgeois experiences awe and wonder at what God is doing in the lives of these students: "As administrators and teachers, we are privileged that God has called us to do this work–which is His work. These are His students, not mine."
Msgr. Bourgeois grew up in Bennington and attended Sacred Heart Parish and School.
"I believe Catholic education is more relevant than ever," he enthused. "Catholic schools provide a base for morals and a relationship with God, both badly needed in life. It provides a foundation from which they will draw strength and inspiration in living out their lives. In a world that has turned to relativism as its approach to almost everything, the Church offers another way that is refreshing and steeped in His plan for the world. I believe Catholic schools are the most important ministry of evangelization we have today, second only to parishes themselves."
He encourages families to seek a Catholic education for their children: "Where else will they be introduced to the faith in such an intense manner? Where else will they be held to high standards of behavior and learning? Catholic schools are indeed a treasure."
As he concludes his assignment as principal of Rice Memorial High School, Msgr. Bourgeois is realizing how meaningful things are that he thought were just part of the job: Standing in the lobby every morning welcoming everyone to school for the day, attending games and drama events to cheer on the students, giving brief "homilies" on the intercom every morning, just smiling and saying "good morning" or "hello."
"The fact that I have raised lots of money, renovated a building or done anything pales in comparison to the simple fact of being present to the students and thus encouraging them at the key moments of their lives," he said. "While it is often unspoken, they know I care about them. For sure, this has been God's work. It has been a wonderful experience. I will miss it dearly, and Rice will always hold a special place in my heart and soul."
Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.
Cori Urban is a longtime writer for the communications efforts of the Diocese of Burlington and former editor of The Vermont Catholic Tribune.