By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
TULSA, Okla.—Benedictine Sister Julia Marie Roy can speak from on high, from an unprecedented viewpoint, about her colleague, Matt Vereecke, the school director of Monte Cassino Catholic School.
Sister Julia, who is Monte Cassino’s director of Mission Integration, joined Vereecke in skydiving from a Cessna on Aug. 21 to help the 90-year-old school raise $60,000 for scholarships.
But it wasn’t that the altitude truly changed Sister Julia’s impressions of Vereecke as a creative and innovative leader; the air up there merely crystallized the school community’s recognition that the director believes learning occurs on many different planes.
“He was the one who had the bright idea of having me jump out of a plane,” Sister Julia says as she sits in a cozy conference room as rain pelts Monte Cassino’s windows on a late October day. “His challenge backfired, as he ended up jumping, too.”
Sister Julia, who lives with 18 other Benedictine sisters in the monastery at Monte Cassino Catholic School, says that the 1,100 who attended the school picnic to watch the tandem skydives learned not about a flying nun and a daring director, but about the nature of learning.
“Matt’s a learner,” she says. “He has St. Benedict’s love of learning. It’s having curiosity about things. I think that’s huge. If we’re expecting our kids to do the work, they have to see us learning.”
At 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Vereecke long has been used to making great strides, in numerous ways.
Vereecke, 33, is set to become the Diocese of Dallas’ Superintendent of Catholic Schools on Jan. 4, having been appointed by Bishop Kevin J. Farrell in September to succeed Sister Gloria Cain (SSND) upon her retirement from the position.
Vereecke knows it will be a tall order to take charge of the destinies of the Dallas-area Catholic schools’ 14,802 students.
“My feeling is that I can do great things for 850 kids enrolled at Monte Cassino, but my job is to take it to that larger realm and create the conditions for everybody else to do great things,” says Vereecke, who since 2010 has served in his position at Monte Cassino, which is operated by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Joseph Monastery. “The hardest part is that I will miss that constant connection and interaction with the kids.
“But my decision was about wanting to be in a place that says, ‘We’re growing,’ and making sure we have a bishop with the vision and strength of Bishop Farrell.”
Vereecke, a former seminarian, strides down Monte Cassino’s corridors and pops in and out of classrooms as if no part of being an educator matters more than interacting with students.
He lingers outside one of his favorite rooms at Monte Cassino, which is Oklahoma’s largest Catholic elementary school.
Then he enters the kindergarten classroom, where the little ones grin, wave at him and make a request that he has come to expect.
“Touch the ceiling for us,” the students say to Vereecke. “Show us how you can touch the ceiling.”
He laughs as he reminds them that touching the ceiling is something he does on special milestones. And this gentle reminder seems to give them something fun to nurture for another day.
The Monte Cassino staff members know the day is coming, soon, when Vereecke will be gone.
They remain warm and welcoming to visitors on this gloomy day, when showers threaten to wash out a treasured school Halloween outdoor event.
Teachers and administrators try to hide it, but they give every impression of not looking forward to the departure of the man who discovered his destiny not in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., or in his college town of South Bend, Ind., but right here in Tulsa.
Vereecke says that he never had seen Tulsa until 2004, when he arrived to teach school as part of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program.
ACE, through which he met his wife, Elizabeth, taught him that a quality Catholic education makes a far bigger difference in lives than he had imagined.
“I learned that it was the difference for the students of going to college or going to prison,” Vereecke says. “It was the difference between success and failure.”
Since that revelation, he has devoted his life to becoming an educator with the goal of helping all those around him reach their goals.
Vereecke hides his anguish at leaving the Monte Cassino students, but they sense it when they see him.
As he walks down a hallway, a little girl flags him down to ask, “Why are you taking new work and leaving this work?”
Elizabeth, an educator who serves as executive director of a literacy non-profit organization, says that she and her husband always will feel close to Monte Cassino, but are excited about moving to Dallas.
“We have built our lives together here,” she says. “It’s definitely bittersweet. A lot of great things are happening at Monte Cassino. We certainly have fond memories, especially because of the kids.”
Always a teacher
He always will love teaching kids, Vereecke says as he greets students in the student-government elective he teaches every Friday.
This student council lives by the conviction that everyone who sets foot on the Monte Cassino campus should gain from that experience.
The student council members’ initiatives helped the school raise $90,000 for scholarships last year.
“We worked pretty hard,” says Caleb McCullough, a seventh-grader and the council vice president. “We made a video and had a huge raffle. And we got some people to jump from a plane as a challenge to raise money. It was a pretty big deal.”
Everyone laughs as Vereecke rolls his eyes and recalls that he found the jump exhilarating and terrifying.
Elective classes give students room to breathe and grow, Vereecke says.
“The thing I like about having a class like this is that it isn’t stressful,” eighth-grader Logan De Los Santos says. “You get to relax.”
Vereecke says he is a big believer in electives that tap into the students’ and teachers’ passions.
Monte Cassino students can choose among electives including stock-market investment; robotics; rugby; “Star Wars,” and photography.
But Vereecke also contends that passion should resound all over campus, in every field house and conference room, in every chapel and laboratory.
In a series of science labs at Monte Cassino, too many cool things are happening at once to list them all.
Students shake colored beads onto cookie sheets to learn about bacteria and blood cells in a microbiology experiment.
In another lab area, seventh-grader Chandler Eby deftly wields a pair of scissors to cut fresh spinach.
“I’m extracting chlorophyll,” she says with such earnest enjoyment that she might have been at an amusement park instead of a morning class on a rainy school day. “It is helping us to understand photosynthesis. ”
Not that the school’s inspiring environment has created NO problems.
Vereecke pauses to contemplate a particularly pleasing vista beyond the front door of the school, which sits in a leafy urban neighborhood, settled and seemingly secure.
“The biggest problem we have is that we can’t get the students to leave at the end of the school day,” Vereecke says with a laugh. “They like this school so much. That’s a great problem to have.”
Devout Catholic family
Vereecke, who is the oldest of four children, started considering the seminary when he was in the fourth grade, to the great joy of his parents, Carol and Tom.
“We considered it a wonderful thing,” his mother says by phone from her home in Grand Rapids. “It was important for us to have all of our children go to Catholic schools. Making Advent wreaths and saying family rosaries mattered so much. Unless you introduce your young children to them, they won’t have them to continue as traditions when they’re older.”
She and Tom, who is a partner in an accounting firm in West Michigan, believed strongly in uniting the family at meal times, Carol says.
Vereecke’s sister, Amy Medlock of Denver, says that she went to her brother in times of crisis.
“Matt has always been my rock,” she says. “Whenever I was struggling with determining what to do, he could always give me perspective. Matt is great at reading what it is that people need to hear to make them laugh. We’re all really excited for him.”
Vereecke says that family gatherings resound as one of his most cherished memories.
His grandmother, Joanne Gerke, loves to recall her grandson’s devotion to his faith and family.
She says that she never pressured family members to come to her home for the Sunday night rosary.
“But they all showed up most of the time,” she says by phone from her home in Grand Rapids. “The invitation was open to everybody. We started it one Advent or Lent long ago, and we usually had a good crowd. We’d have a pot luck or dessert and coffee. It was just a special time. Matt was kind of a leader. His cousins and all the little kids loved him.
“He’s been a great role model and a delight.”
Vereecke spent two-and-a-half years as a seminarian at Notre Dame’s Old College Undergraduate Seminary before he transferred to the University of Notre Dame. He holds a doctorate in Administration, Curriculum and Supervision from the University of Oklahoma and a M.Ed. from Notre Dame.
He served as a teacher and principal at Catholic schools in Tulsa before his leadership of Monte Cassino, where he supervises a staff of 130, reversed a trend of declining enrollment and helped pull off a 200-percent increase in the school’s annual fund drive.
Bill Keffler, the Diocese of Dallas’ chief operating officer, says that members of the committee that conducted the nationwide search to fill the superintendent post found that Vereecke fit the diocese’s needs.
“The search committee was particularly impressed with Matt’s passion for Catholic schools and his vision as laid out in the Elementary and High School Strategic Plans,” Keffler says. “Matt’s successful tenure at Monte Cassino reflected a unique ability to work with a large student body, a very engaged school board, and a demanding curriculum. We also were very touched by his commitment to a strong Catholic identity that permeated his school environment.”
No stranger to challenges
No lay person had directed Monte Cassino before his arrival, which Vereecke says made him feel a bit nervous.
“It was a pretty big shift,” he says. “All of a sudden, you’re the new guy.”
The staff awaited his initiation with mixed feelings.
“People were ready for the change, but there were a few people who were a little apprehensive,” says Charissa Reece, the executive assistant to the school director and a 17-year employee of Monte Cassino. “There was some fear. But he has done wonders. Dallas is getting an incredible leader.”
Reece wipes some tears from her cheeks as she ponders Vereecke’s departure.
She is not the only one.
Jennifer Light, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at Monte Cassino, stifles a sob as she calls Vereecke a “visionary.”
“He’s funny, personable and very, very open to new ideas,” Light says. “We’re a very prayerful and warm school, and he has nurtured that.”
Between downpours, Vereecke strolls the grounds of the former boarding school and seems to shake off any traces of regret about leaving Monte Cassino.
“Our staff is so strong and so great,” he says as satisfaction lights his angular face. “I’m not worried. I get a lot of credit for things that other people do. The biggest compliment I get is that I hired well.”
But Sister Julia, who has seen Vereecke take on the sky, as well as plenty of other things, says he never should sell himself short.
“He’s a very gifted educator and leader,” she says. “At the first teachers’ meeting after he was hired at Monte Cassino, he said, ‘I am going to promise you that we are going to do what’s best for the children. I may not always do what’s best for you. I may not always do what’s best for the school. But we are going to do what’s best for the kids.’
“I think that set the tone.”