By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
When Elena Hines arrived as the first lay principal at St. Rita Catholic School in 1991, she increased the frequency of school Masses from monthly to weekly and launched a Prayer Buddies program to partner younger and older students in spiritual growth.
That was just the beginning.
“Being the first lay principal, obviously there was a transition,” she said on a late spring morning as she reflected on her retirement on July 1, after leading the school for 26 years. “People were watching to see what I was going to do.”
Observers had plenty to watch and admire as initiatives bloomed and prospered under Hines’ wisdom and guidance, her colleagues, staff members and the parents of her students said.
Hines said that Father Paul Schott, then the pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church, hired her with the priority of expanding the school’s inclusiveness to welcome students with learning challenges.
The philosophical shift allowed Anne and Scot O’Brien’s son Luke, who has Down syndrome, to go to school with his siblings at St. Rita.
“It was encouraging to us that Dr. Hines was open to this,” Anne O’Brien said. “She saw that this has to be a whole community together, because this was a philosophical shift toward asking if more can be done to support both ends—for the kids who are gifted and the kids who need more academic support.”
Luke, now 31, is a beloved member of the St. Rita community, where he is an usher.
“We are so indebted to Dr. Hines and her leadership,” Anne O’Brien said. “She had the courage, the wisdom and the faith to approach this in terms of God might be calling us to do this, though it might be difficult. It was her respect for every child’s potential to contribute and to grow.”
Hines, the daughter of a lawyer and an educator, arrived from her native Cuba in New Orleans as a high school student.
“We left Cuba because of Castro,” she said. “I had spent childhood summers in Miami and had learned English at boarding school in Virginia.”
Hines holds a bachelor’s degree in French from Louisiana State University-New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans), a master’s degree in French from Indiana University and a doctorate in Private School Administration from the University of San Francisco’s Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership.
She arrived in North Texas in 1983 when she became the principal at Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic School in Irving—her position prior to her arrival at St. Rita, which was established in 1964 and staffed by the Bernardine Sisters.
Carol Ann Everling-Walsh, who most recently served as principal of St. Cecilia Catholic School in Houston, will succeed Hines.
Hines said that she will profoundly miss seeing her grandson, Cole, a sixth-grader at St. Rita, during the school day.
“I’m going to miss the kids,” Hines said. “You walk down the hall, and they’ll give you a hug. I’ll miss the staff—the high-energy teachers, role models who stand out more than others, and the go-getters.”
Hines said that among her career’s treasured initiatives is the Diocesan Speech League for students to hone skills in the dramatic arts and public speaking.
“One of the great things about her is how really generous she is,” said Phil Riley, who was a second-year teacher when Hines hired him to teach at St. Rita and now is the principal at St. Monica Catholic School. “She doesn’t micromanage people. She’s been a voice not just of reason but of wisdom and guidance for the 17 years that I’ve been a principal.”
St. Rita kindergarten teacher Kerry Franklin, who was a member of the school’s first third-grade class in 1964, said that Hines’ gentle guidance will remain key to her legacy.
“She shines because of who she is and the way she carries herself,” Franklin said. “She’ll always be in our hearts. She will never be far.”