Rose Morrisette, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Catholic school teachers from across the diocese, their principals, and special guests gathered at the Roslyn Retreat Center, Richmond, Thursday, May 10, for the first Excellence in Catholic Education awards presented by the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Catholic Schools.

Nominated educators from 24 schools were on hand for the announcement of three regional award winners: From the western vicariate, Paulette Leonard of St. Anne Catholic School, Bristol; in the central vicariate, it was Scott Schaefer of St. Mary Catholic School, Richmond;  and Bonnie Johnson of Christ the King Catholic School, Norfolk, in the eastern vicariate.

Sue Wilkinson of Peninsula Catholic High School, Newport News, received the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award.

Paulette Leonard

Leonard teaches art and religion at St. Anne, and is religion coordinator. She has been at the school for more than 25 years.

At 71, she shows no signs of slowing down or leaving.

“I love teaching at St. Anne,” she said. “Being able to share faith and life experiences with students, teachers, and parents continues to enrich my life.”

Her favorite affirmation came from a fourth grade student who asked if she loved her job. She quickly said, “Yes,” and he replied, “It shows.”

In nominating Leonard, principal Billie Schneider highlighted her many school activities and engagements, including the mentoring and guiding of religion teachers; her work as an artist, particularly her way of implementing projects so students feel a connection with God; and her work in providing faculty and school retreats.

Scott Schaefer

Schaefer is an IB MYP (International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme) language and literature teacher at St. Mary. He is also athletic director. He has taught at the school for  12 years, as a fourth grade teacher for six years, then as a member of the middle school team.

Benedictine College Prep and Saint Gertrude High School for more than a decade.

He said he was “excited, surprised, and humbled” by the award, but honored to receive it, and to represent St. Mary School, noting he was fortunate to work with great faculty at the school.

Schaefer was inspired by many at the awards ceremony who are passionate about their jobs.

He recognized that “in Catholic education, we teachers appreciate the fact that our faith is the main way we impact our students — helping them to form spiritually.”

The teacher is aware of the importance of modeling life as a “positive man of Christ” for his students, and desires authentic relationships with them in order to accomplish this.

“Being present for my students motivates me the most on a daily basis,” Schaefer said. “It was the teacher I found accessible and real that truly made an impact on me. I strive to be that accessible teacher.”

In nominating him, principal Jenni Ellis described Schaefer as “a Catholic educator in every sense,” and observed that “the values of our faith are not just present but overtly present in his classroom.”


Bonnie Johnson

Johnson is a third grade teacher at Christ the King where she has been for eight years. She began her association with the school while pursuing a reading specialist master’s degree.

She was “shocked, humbled, and honored” to receive her award, and was honored to be with the Catholic school educators at the awards ceremony. She described them as “people who work hard, are so positive, and are creative in reaching students; they think outside the box.”

To Johnson, Catholic education is freedom.

“Not everyone has a chance to live and grow in God’s light,” she said. “A Catholic education is the opportunity for teachers as well as students to live in his light.”

Johnson said she would not have her award without the “phenomenally caring” teachers with whom she works.

“At school, there is team effort, camaraderie, and humor. There is no ‘I’ in team. Everyone teaches me in some way every day,” she said, adding that she stresses the importance of team in her classroom also.

In nominating Johnson, Terri Brodeur, Christ the King principal, recognized her “pure devotion” to the school and its children. She said Johnson focuses on children as individuals, and tends to their unique abilities and needs. She models a faith-filled life, and “students know they can rely on her and trust her at every moment.”

The principal said Johnson engenders respect from parents, students, and staff, adding, “Her sense of positivity in all areas is infectious, and should be rewarded.”

Sue Wilkinson

Wilkinson was “surprised, honored, and humbled” to be recognized with the Elizabeth Ann Seton award.

She said the award belonged to everyone, explaining, “It’s for the whole school. We’re a team.”

Wilkinson believes the award is important because it recognizes teachers in a special way, and encourages others in this ministry.

“It reminds us why we’re here — for the kids and for God,” she said.

For more than 30 years, Wilkinson has served the diocese in different capacities. Her roles have included youth minister, pastoral associate, and theology teacher.

She has been at Peninsula Catholic for 14 years. Currently, she is theology department chair, 12th grade theology teacher, and teacher for international students (primarily Chinese students) of mixed grades.

As department chair, she supports and guides other religion teachers. She is also liturgical coordinator, and works closely with Father Joe Goldsmith, school chaplain, and the liturgical team. The priest sees her as a builder and nurturer who “imprints our faith on the school.”

According to the diocesan office of Catholic schools, the Elizabeth Seton Award award is presented to “an exemplary teacher whose instruction, support, and service positively impacts Catholic education. Honorees are selected based on their selfless work in service of the Gospel in both word and deed, their dedication to Catholic education, their instructional expertise, and their witness to their faith to help transform the lives of our Catholic school students and communities.”

The award is named for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in recognition of her lifelong dedication to teaching and children.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout was administering the sacrament of confirmation at Holy Trinity Parish, Norfolk, that evening and was unable to attend the event. However, in a statement read by Ray Honeycutt, superintendent of schools, the bishop praised the educators for the work they do:

“I commend you for accepting God’s call to this very important ministry. Each of you has distinguished yourself in the way you contribute to the common good in the formation of your students and assisting parents in their role as the first educators of their children.”