New scholarship honors leader - St. James principal brings faith while suffering from terminal illness

By Catholic New World
Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mary Kay Tschanz has been the heart and soul of St. James School in Highwood for 18 years.

She has led her faculty and formed her students by living her faith, said Mary Vitulli, assistant principal at St. James.

“She personified what it means to live your faith, not just talk about your faith,” Vitulli said. “She brings alive what it means to be Catholic.”

This year, after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, she has continued to do so, despite her deteriorating condition.

“She still loves to see the children,” said Vitulli, who said that Tschanz comes to school as often as she can, although her condition has deteriorated to the point that she has only limited movement of her left arm and hand and can no longer communicate easily.

“And they love to see her. When she arrives, they just jump for joy. They are not so frightened and afraid as I thought they would be,” said Vitulli.

Service award

Tschanz was honored this spring with the first Distinguished Service Award ever given by the Office for Catholic Schools, and the school has started a scholarship fund in her honor. The school hopes to collect $50,000, which will be invested and the interest used to offer partial scholarships to St. James Parish families who are in need.

So far, the school has collected about $15,000, and Pleasant Rowland, founder of the Rowland Reading Foundation whose Superkids reading curriculum is used at St. James, has offered to match the first $10,000 raised, said Bill Booth of the archdiocese’s Office for Stewardship and Development.

“One of the things Mary Kay always wanted was for every family who wanted a Catholic education for their children to be able to have one,” Vitulli said.

The new scholarship will be in addition to scholarships that aid local Latino families and military families from the nearby Great Lakes Naval Station. The school currently receives between $50,000 and $70,000 a year in scholarship money for its 165 students. Average tuition is about $4,000 per child, and those who receive scholarships usually get no more than $1,000.

Living with ALS

Tschanz, who taught at St. Mary School in Lake Forest for 17 years before coming to St. James, was diagnosed with ALS last spring. She had experienced some symptoms, but did not seek help until she had difficulty picking up the hosts when she was serving as an extraordinary minister of Communion.

ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord that causes weakness, loss of muscle control and eventual paralysis and death. There is no cure.

Vitulli already has assumed much of the day-to-day responsibility of serving as principal. Tschanz will officially step down due to illness July 1.