Servant-Leaders in Catholic Education

Mayors. Award-winning filmmakers. Hall-of-famers. Olympians. Authors. Chiefs of police and fire departments.

Generations of students have passed through the halls of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Many have gone on to become trailblazers and leaders in their respective professions. From politics and law to athletics and art, SHC alumni have left an indelible mark of excellence.

However, a group of alumni are animating the school’s philosophy—educate students by the tenets of the Gospel and serve others with compassion. These individuals are not athletes. They are not politicians. Theresa Flynn Houghton ’96, Sister Georgina Severin, DC, ’98, Fr. Tom Martin ’82 (pictured above), Gustavo Torres ’06, and Brian Joost ’96 are just a few of the many alumni who are making an impact as leaders in Catholic education today. 

Servant-leadership, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, is a non-traditional leadership philosophy that places an emphasis on the well-being of others. SHC alumni in leadership roles within Catholic education are perfect examples of this philosophy because they learned it early during their formative years at SHC. 

Theresa, President of De Marillac Academy in San Francisco and who grew up in the Sunset District, remembers the influence of SHC staff. “I would say that I think the adults in the community modeled servant leadership, whether verbalized or not,” she said. “ When I was at SHC, there was an effort to develop a young person, be mindful of the world around us, outside of maybe our bubble. And there was always an appreciation for doing well for others, whether it's service clubs or it’s just you signed up for things because people needed help.”

Theresa has carried over what she has learned into her role at the De Marillac Academy, which currently has 106 students, with many coming from the culturally diverse and vibrant Tenderloin District. “All of my decisions, all of the way I think about the world and my role as a leader, is in service of others, and making sure that that's how I collectively think and operate. It also just means that as a servant leader, I am responsible for a lot, but I'm also able to do any job. So, I always really try to participate at every level of any activity that's happening.”

When SHC students are on campus, the motto, Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve, can be seen throughout the school. It’s a daily reminder to always be of service to your community. Sister Georgina, who grew up in the Richmond District and became a Daughter of Charity in 2014, learned early on what being of service truly means during an SHC Venaver service immersion trip to Tijuana, Mexico, during her junior year in 1997. These trips challenge students to partner with and serve communities in need and promote human solidarity, cultural awareness, ongoing service and an appreciation of sustaining the value of faith.

“It was the single, most impactful event of my time in high school,” Sister Georgina said. “I didn't know what we were walking into, but I think it was the first time I came to an awareness that there were people who lived in such a different way than we did. It was my first time in contact with the kind of poverty that we encountered. We encountered slums, and we encountered people at the border. We were able to spend time with migrants at one of the shelters. And so it was impactful because I think it just opened up my world…I can't live my life just for me. I have to be somebody who is living for others."

The seed of service planted during her time at SHC blossomed into her becoming a Daughter of Charity and an educator for the past 21 years. Throughout her time as a teacher, the children under her care have come from some of the most underserved communities, from Los Angeles, California, to Phoenix, Arizona. Sister Georgina, an 8th-grade homeroom teacher at Saint Vincent de Paul School in Phoenix, said being empathetic to her students and connecting with them are the strengths of being a good teacher. “My work is not for glory. It really is to help make other people succeed in their hopes and dreams,” she said. “My strength is that I know each one of my students. I know their personality. I know their strengths. I know their weaknesses. I know what brings them delight. I know what hurts them. I use that to connect with them. Then from there, I use that as a springboard to help them go in the direction they're supposed to go.”

The Lasallian-Vincentian Catholic education is a holistic approach to educating students, encouraging them to grow academically and spiritually, and using those skills and talents learned in the classroom to lead a productive, service-oriented life. Gustavo Torres, who grew up in the Mission District and is the Principal (Interim Principal from 2021-2023) at Good Shepherd School in Pacifica, CA, said the SHC way of educating the student, as a whole, had a profound impact. “I really benefited a lot from the teachers at Sacred Heart Cathedral because they genuinely cared about what I wanted to do in the future,” he said. “SHC was active. You had Campus Ministry, a lot of assignments, youth projects and activities. I was just really involved at the school. I wouldn’t change anything about my experience at SHC.” That experience would eventually lead to a career in Catholic education. From 2011 to 2023, he worked in the Department of Catholic Schools, working with inner-city schools before taking on the interim principal role at Good Shepherd School, where currently 199 students fall under his care. At his school, he made it a point that students have opportunities to learn about their communities and serve them, as well, through engagement activities like making lunches for a local soup kitchen or collaborating with a neighboring parish to collect food items for migrant farm workers. “We do just little things like that, something that is really active here that was very similar to the work we did at Sacred Heart Cathedral.”

Fr. Tom Martin’s role is anything but “little.” He is the Pastor of St. Pius X Church in Redwood City, Administrator of St. Anthony’s Church in Menlo Park and Catholic Chaplain for the San Francisco Fire Department and the San Francisco Giants. He is also a Chaplain for the Order of Malta and Legatus and Associate Vicar for Clergy and Associate Vocations Director (San Mateo County) of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. To put it simply, he is busy.

Growing up in the Inner Sunset, Father Tom remembers how the Catholic community back then was strong and how the Church was the epicenter of social activities. “There was a crossover between where you went to school and where your parents socialized, which is radically different from today. At the time, the Parish was the center of the social life for many Catholics in San Francisco.”

That sense of community continued when he entered Sacred Heart High School, where he learned the importance of brotherhood and witnessed service-in-action. “Seeing the brothers dedicate their lives to teaching…I saw people dedicating their lives so selflessly to others with no other reward than serving God and helping develop young people into healthy, strong adults. Just again, even in the mind of a teenager, that was just a predominant impression that was left,” he said

The Catholic community he remembers growing up in as an adolescent has since changed. Demographics in neighborhoods and cities are changing. Non-Catholic student enrollment is up. There are tensions between secular culture and religious culture. Father Tom’s solution—bridge the gap.

“For me personally, really trying to narrow the gap. It’s not just the secular world, it’s not just religion, but how do we move in a healthier direction where people respect each other’s perspectives,” Father Tom said. “ I think there are two ways to address change. One is to become insular and bitter, or in my case, to say I was very blessed to grow up in a different San Francisco, but also recognizing the possibilities that come with change. The Church cannot be a fortress. I think there has to be a real sensitivity to where people are coming from."

Father Tom sees connection as the key. As pastor of St. Pius X Church (predominantly caucasian) and administrator of St. Anthony’s Church (mainly Hispanic), he’s held events that bring together both parishes, which allows them to build their community beyond the neighborhoods they live in. A couple hours a week, he also spends time with students in the classroom or out on the fields of play.

“Living your faith with joy and with an energy so that kids look at that, even if they're not hyper-religious, or even if it never occurred to them to be a priest or a nun or whatever, they're attracted at least to that joy or to that fun,” Father Tom said. “They also see that there's a side of me that's fun, loving and likes to kid around, but also, especially when we're in the classroom or at mass, being respectful and teaching each other respect and then, obviously, enter to learn, leave to serve.”

Brian Joost is someone bridging the gap at the School of the Epiphany. Joost, who grew up in the Sunset District, said understanding the community is vital to his success as a leader in Catholic education. He attributes this to having held various positions at the School of the Epiphany for the past 20 years, which include teacher, vice principal and now principal for the past five years.

“I think being accessible and really understanding who your community is and what they need is important. Because every school's different, and every grade level's different and every parent's different,” Joost said. “Some people might just need a ‘Hey, hello, how's it going?" But for some people, some families, they really need help. My door's open 99 percent of the time.” From tuition assistance and tax filing to high school applications and secondary language needs, Joost truly connects with the families and students under his care.

Joost credits part of his leadership style and gospel values of service to the adults who helped shape him into who he is today—the SHC staff and teachers. “When you think back to SHC now as an adult, you realize how much your teachers were there for you and the purpose they had for doing things a certain way. They were present and were positive influences."

Many SHC alumni have gone on to be trailblazers and leaders in their respective professions, but some are called to shape and educate the next generation. Why? Because they remember the impact their teachers had on them. They remember words of wisdom and faith from the Brothers and Sisters. They remember that when you enter Sacred Heart Cathedral, you will leave to serve—and that is why Theresa Flynn Houghton ’96, Sister Georgina Severin, DC, ’98, Fr. Tom Martin ’82, Gustavo Torres ’06 and Brian Joost ’96 are leaders in Catholic education.

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