Taking students deeper into their subject matter comes naturally to Patty Russell, a teacher at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington.
Whether introducing students to a complex novel or to serving others in need in the community, it’s that balance that has earned Russell the “Lead. Learn. Proclaim.” Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. Russell will be honored April 23 with the award, which recognizes educators nationwide for their contributions to Catholic education. She has almost 30 years of teaching experience, primarily English and theology classes at Borgia.
She challenges students to go deeper in and out of the classroom. She shows them firsthand the corporal work of mercy to feed the hungry. Every month, she packs a 14-passenger van with students and food to serve homeless people at Peter & Paul Community Services’ evening shelter in Soulard. She helps organize the Harvest Table, a ministry in Washington that brings together different Christian communities to provide a free meal to members of the community every week. And she recently started organizing on St. Francis Borgia’s campus a food pantry that offers nonperishable goods to people in need.
Junior Drew Snider began helping at Peter and Paul Community Services last year and said the experience opened his eyes to the needs of others. He said of Russell: “She’s a good and faith-filled person and does so much for our community. She’s a service-to-others kind of person, and that’s very admirable.”
Corine Schroeder, a junior, said Russell “always encourages us to go out and help others. She encourages us to go out and do good.”
St. Francis Borgia’s outgoing president Father Kevin Schmittgens described Russell as preaching her faith best through actions. “She lives out the mandate of Jesus in the best possible way,” he wrote in recommending Russell for the award. (Father Schmittgens will take on a new assignment this year; he will be succeeded by Father Michael Boehm as president.)
Father Schmittgens, who started at Borgia in 1989, the same year as Russell, said she’s always ready and willing to serve the school where needed, from editing the school yearbook to teaching a recreational activities class, to helping at student retreats. “Whatever Borgia needed, Patty has done,” he said. “She’s done everything around here.”
Russell sheepishly described the honor as “humbling” and much preferred to talk about her students and what’s drawn her to Catholic education.
Russell increased the visits to Peter and Paul from once a year to monthly and said the ripple effect among students has been incredible. “This is not just a seasonal thing. This is not just an occasional thing,” she said. “This is who we are. This is what we do. The kids feel that relationship,” both with the community of homeless individuals and others helping serve the meals.
Russell got her start in Catholic education after graduating with a degree in English literature and minor in theology and secondary education from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich, where the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids inspired her with their commitment to teaching. Russell’s first teaching job was at Powers Catholic High School in Flint, Mich. She moved to Washington in 1989. (“I planned on coming for a year,” she laughed.) Russell told a friend she was looking for a teaching job. The friend insisted that Russell visit Borgia to talk to the administration; they were impressed and Russell was hired to start that fall.
“When I came here, this was the one and only place that I interviewed,” she said. “It was the first opportunity that I had, but I like to think that it was a vision — a calling. Our former German teacher used to say, ‘It’s not odd, it’s God.’ I think that’s where this comes to be. I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else.”
“Lead. Learn. Proclaim.” Awards
Patty Russell is among 27 Catholic educators from across the United States to receive the National Catholic Education Association’s fourth annual “Lead. Learn. Proclaim.” Award. The awards will be presented at a dinner Tuesday, April 23, at the NCEA’s convention in Chicago. The award recognizes outstanding efforts, contributions and achievements on behalf of Catholic school education.
This isn’t the first time that a teacher from St. Francis Borgia has recieved the award. Kathy Hertlein, a teacher and academic dean at St. Francis Borgia, received the award in 2017, along with several others from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.