Mrs. Kathy Alton, Principal
Mrs. Kathy Alton’s Sacred Heart of Jesus School Vision:
“Standing on the firm foundation of those who came before us, united in hope, we walk forward continuing the mission of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. With the love of Jesus as the source of all we do, Sacred Heart School educates the whole child in a family environment where students are eager to learn and teachers are free to teach. In an age of confusion and division, Sacred Heart stands as a beacon of all that is good and true, and beautiful. Accepting each person as a gift from God and encouraging one another to grow in virtue, the Sacred Heart community labors joyfully in the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth.”
On the desk of the new Sacred Heart of Jesus School principal, Mrs. Kathy Alton, sits an item that draws a powerful connection between the past and the present: a small religious statue given to her by Sister Mary Etta, a music teacher when Mrs. Alton herself was a student at Sacred Heart. “She gave me this for my First Communion, and I still keep it,” Mrs. Alton explains. “I gave it to my son for a while when he needed it, but it’s something that I had in my bedroom, in my classroom, and then it will be in the office here with me because it’s kind of a touchstone back to Sister Mary Etta. There were even nights when I was growing up that I would feel scared, and I’d hold onto it in bed just to feel safe and close to Jesus.”
That sense of feeling safe, secure, and loved seems to permeate each memory Mrs. Alton shares of her time as a student at Sacred Heart. She attended Sacred Heart from 1967 to 1975, walking to and from school with her siblings. The fifth of six children, Mrs. Alton started her Sacred Heart education in first grade, as there was no kindergarten at the time. Mrs. Alton’s family belonged to the parish of Sacred Heart, as well, and the combined role of the school and parish on Mrs. Alton’s life and faith formation was profound. “These were my friendships, this was my spiritual experience,” Mrs. Alton says. “I was very much formed here with the teachers, the religious sisters, the priests that we had in the parish at that time (we had two full-time priests), and then the principal at Catholic High lived in the rectory, as well. It was the foundation of my spiritual foundation that went on to develop at Lancaster Catholic, which instilled in me a desire to keep learning about the faith.” Mrs. Alton goes on to reflect that “Sacred Heart was kind of the hub of our life, which was not uncommon back then.” She indicates, too, that Sacred Heart filled her family’s spiritual and educational needs, stating, “A lot of the things we did socially were around the parish, and service that we did as a family was through Sacred Heart. My parents were very involved here, so…that was my world pretty much from first through eighth grade.”
When asked to share if she had a favorite teacher while she attended Sacred Heart, Mrs. Alton is hard-pressed to respond. “This was a tough one because I had a lot of really good teachers,” she says. Two of those teachers, though, hold a particularly special place in Mrs. Alton’s memory: Noel Runkle and Sister Mary Etta. Mrs. Alton recalls that Noel Runkle, who taught seventh and eighth grade, had a way of making her students feel seen and valued. “She treated us like the budding young adults that we were,” Mrs. Alton says. Of all of the wonderful Sacred Heart teachers Mrs. Alton had, though, she confirms that Sister Mary Etta, the music teacher who gifted her with the religious statue that now sits on her desk, is “the one that had the most impact on me and that I think about the most.” In addition to serving as the music teacher at Sacred Heart, Sister Mary Etta taught piano lessons in the convent. Mrs. Alton remembers how, during first and second grade, she would arrive at the convent either early in the morning or after school to take piano lessons with Sister Mary Etta. “I was not a very good piano student,” Mrs. Alton recalls with a hint of humor, “and [Sister Mary Etta] just had a joyfulness. And you knew when she looked at you that she accepted you even if you hadn’t practiced. She was a cheek pincher, so she would always say, ‘You’re so cute!’”
Sister Mary Etta was also responsible for directing Sacred Heart’s plays and musical productions. While casting for the school’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sister Mary Etta had the perfect role in mind for Mrs. Alton. Providing necessary background information for the story, Mrs. Alton recalls, “I was very shy at that age, and also, people would tell me that I was smiling all the time.” Knowing about these qualities of Mrs. Alton, Sister Mary Etta pointed directly at her and cast her for the first part in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, saying, “Kathy’s gonna be Grumpy!” Mrs. Alton laughs, sharing, “It was funny because I was that one that always had a smile on my face. During the rehearsals and the play, she always reminded me, ‘Don’t smile; look grumpy! Look grumpy!’”
As Mrs. Alton progressed through Sacred Heart, she engaged in some academic endeavors “that were very profound for me.” Mrs. Alton recalls how, in the seventh grade, Sister Jane Anne—whom Mrs. Alton describes as “a great teacher”—“taught a unit on genetics, and I was fascinated by that…I don’t know that I remember specifics, but I remember just being so interested.” Later on, as an eighth-grader, Mrs. Alton recalls that “We had to do a history project, and we chose [the topic], and it had to be approved by the teacher.” Inspired by her impending transition from elementary/middle school to high school, Mrs. Alton decided to research the history of Lancaster Catholic, the school that she would attend and that her father had graduated from years before. She also wanted to learn about “the land and the neighborhood that [Lancaster Catholic High School] was developed in.” To complete the project, Mrs. Alton explains, “I would go over to the Lancaster Historical Society to do my research on Saturdays or after school, and there was a lovely volunteer there, an older man, who helped me so much, to go through the archives and find the deed for the land and look at the old pictures…So that was a really engaging academic experience I had here.”
School carried with it some challenging experiences, too. Mrs. Alton shares that “I struggled in school, and that was new for my parents because the four siblings ahead of me were very—they were very good at school. I was going to say they’re very bright, but that sounds like I think I’m not bright, and I’ve come to learn that I just am bright in a different way.” She describes how school was “hard” and “a bugaboo,” especially because “that was before they would identify students with learning differences.” Mrs. Alton reveals, “In my later life, I’ve come to realize that I have a reading disability” that is “in the dyslexia family.” “But I didn’t know that going through school,” she clarifies. Even without the support for learning differences that exists today, though, Mrs. Alton says that “At Sacred Heart, I struggled, but I also knew I was loved.” That love surely contributed to Mrs. Alton’s deep affection for reading and writing. She notes that “I was—I am—a good writer, and I do have a love of reading. So that was instilled somewhere along the line. Somebody made me interested that this is worth putting effort into, and also the feedback [I received] kind of rewarded or noticed or recognized that I have a gift in this area.” The support and encouragement Mrs. Alton received from her teachers, as well as the sense of empathy she developed from her own difficulties with school, have contributed to making her a deeply passionate and understanding educator. “I think that experience…has really helped me be a good teacher because I have that empathy for students who aren’t getting it in the traditional way. I know what that feels like,” she says.
After graduating first from Sacred Heart of Jesus School in 1975 and then from Lancaster Catholic High School in 1979, Mrs. Alton pursued higher education. She states, “I really started to blossom in my junior and senior year of college, and then I went on to get two master’s degrees. I couldn’t get enough!” She explains that it was exciting to learn about “things that I felt very connected to and were very relevant to me.” Mrs. Alton shares, too, the belief that lay at the heart of her eventual career goals, stating, “Professionally, I’ve always had a desire to serve, and I think that was instilled at Sacred Heart and at Lancaster Catholic. So, my paycheck had to have a purpose, you know? I wasn’t just going to work for money, although that’s important; people need that to survive and live and raise children and all that…but very much, I never considered a career outside of something where I would be helping people.”
Mrs. Alton’s first opportunity to help people in a professional capacity occurred after she earned her degree in Early Childhood Elementary Education from Elizabethtown College. She took a job teaching first grade at Manheim Central School District. Building on her desire to serve others, Mrs. Alton also earned a master’s degree in education at Millersville University, gaining certification as a school counselor in the process. Putting that certification to good use, Mrs. Alton worked as a school counselor at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was during that time that she met her husband, Mr. James “Jamie” Alton.
Setting out on a new adventure, Mrs. Alton and her husband moved to Colorado, where they lived for eight years. Before moving, Mrs. Alton had begun working toward a master’s degree in theology at Loyola University in Baltimore. Her new hometown of Denver, though, did not offer any Catholic master’s degree programs in theology. Undeterred, Mrs. Alton enrolled at the Iliff School of Theology on the campus of the University of Denver. “It was a Methodist seminary, but they opened their doors to Catholics, so there were like 10 to 15 Catholics in the program,” Mrs. Alton explains. For subjects important to Catholic theology in particular, such as a class on the sacraments, the Catholic members of the program went to Regis University in Denver. “It was an interesting experience,” Mrs. Alton says.
In 2003, Mrs. Alton returned to her Lancaster roots, taking a position as a theology teacher at Lancaster Catholic High School. Mrs. Alton was eager to share her passion for learning about the Catholic faith with her students. She reflects on the reality that “there’s no way, you know, in one hour of religion class every day for the period they’re at Catholic High you can possibly cover everything that you can cover about the Catholic faith because it’s so deep and so rich and so profound.” Because of that, she worked to inspire her students in such a way that “they [would] want to continue to learn about [the Catholic faith].” In time, Mrs. Alton became the chair of the theology department at Lancaster Catholic. She was also recognized for her excellence in teaching in 2019, when she received a Golden Apple award. According to a news release on Lancaster Catholic’s website, this award “symbolizes a teacher’s professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching in Catholic schools.”
Mrs. Alton shares, “I really thought I would spend the rest of my professional life teaching at Lancaster Catholic because I was very happy there, and it’s a wonderful school.” She reveals, though, that God had other plans in mind for her. “I did feel in my prayer life a certain restlessness for the past couple years, of maybe being nudged,” she explains. She says she asked, “‘Is there something else; do you want me to do something else, God?’ Like I’m very comfortable where I am right now, and you know how God is when you get comfortable. So I felt this kind of nudging, and then I got very involved at Sacred Heart.” Mrs. Alton, who was a member of St. Leo’s parish for a time—a place where she was “very happy” and received “great spiritual formation”—felt a pull back to her childhood parish after the passing of her mother. “When my mom died, even though we had her for so long, it had a profound impact on me. So I found myself wanting to come to Sacred Heart to Mass more. And I had all my sacraments at Sacred Heart, all of them: Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, [Marriage]. The people who I love the most who have died, their funerals have been there. I’m not a Church-hopper, so it was a big decision for me. You know, I just feel really at peace and home here. So I transferred to Sacred Heart.”
Striving to share her gifts with the Sacred Heart community, Mrs. Alton quickly became involved in parish life by teaching PSR, conducting Bible studies with adults, serving as a lector, and working on the strategic planning committee. When she learned about the opening for the position of principal at Sacred Heart of Jesus School, Mrs. Alton’s thoughts returned to that gentle “nudging” she had experienced in her prayer life. “I thought, ‘Hmm…is this it, God?’” she says. She decided, however, that she would not pursue the opportunity unless someone approached her about it. “So, well, three different people reached out to me,” she shares. “And interestingly,…long before the principal position became available, somebody said to me at a holiday party kind of randomly, ‘You’d make a good principal.’ And I thought, you know, ‘No.’ But it stuck with me.” She describes her journey to the principalship as “God’s grace kind of unfolding.” She shares, too, how it feels to return to her elementary school in her new role: “When I walk in the doors in the morning, it is, wow, it’s kind of beyond words, the feeling of coming back here where I started,…a place that was so integral in my life, it’s such a blessing. I’m like, ‘Father, you are so good to me!’”
Mrs. Alton is making history at Sacred Heart as the first layperson to serve as principal of the school. “I recognize the moment that we’re in now, with me being the first lay principal. And I have great reverence for that, for the fact that, you know, we wouldn’t be here as a school if it wasn’t for the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters,” she says. “It’s very, very important to me that we keep the charism of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters and that they be involved in the school. They are such a gift. And that we carry on their beautiful, you know, hospitality, joyfulness, their charity, their hope, their faithfulness,” Mrs. Alton says. “My personal gratitude to [the IHM Sisters] is deep, and I think the community owes them a debt of gratitude.”
Continuing to reflect on her new role as principal, Mrs. Alton shares that “To be in this position as the leader of a school is new for me, and I’m really, like, I want to claim that authority as leader because a team needs that. Authority’s a strong word. To claim that leadership or claim that, you know, kind of the coach of the team. And at the same time, like, balance that with humility…that’s something that’s constantly in my prayer life…for that to stay very central. So, that’s one of my adjustments, to be in the position of the decision maker.” She notes that Richard Foster’s book The Vanishing Virtue of Humility is providing her with helpful guidance.
When asked if she has ever found herself thinking back to lessons she learned at Sacred Heart while she makes decisions in a professional capacity, Mrs. Alton shares a thoughtful answer: “Maybe not consciously, but it’s part of my psyche, you know?” She explains that while she “might not have thought back to a particular lesson,” she has “thought back to particular people” from her Sacred Heart School experience. “It’s integrated in me,” Mrs. Alton says, “so all of those experiences of Catholic education are part of who I am and how I respond or how I discern things or make decisions.”
Mrs. Alton wants to ensure that new generations of children can benefit from the faith-based education and foundation for life that she herself received at Sacred Heart. She understands the sacrifices that parents must make in order to choose a Catholic education for their children, a choice she believes is “especially important now.” Mrs. Alton states, “Back when I was a child, it was a no-brainer. We’d go to Catholic school. And tuition was not as expensive,” largely because “there were more religious sisters in the school and fewer salaries to pay.” She recognizes that choosing to send their children to Catholic school is “a financial commitment for parents.” At the same time, though, Mrs. Alton stresses that “We don’t want anyone not to come to Sacred Heart because of money. We work with people because [Catholic education is] so valuable.”
Not only do Mrs. Alton and the rest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus School community strive to make students, parents, and visitors feel welcome, but the building itself seems to work toward this goal, too. “You walk in the building, and you immediately feel welcome,” Mrs. Alton says. “There is—and I feel this way about Lancaster Catholic, too, and I’ve had visitors tell me, people like, who don’t have any previous experience—you walk in and there’s a spirit there. There’s a hymn that I love, it’s a Protestant hymn, but it’s ‘Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in This Place.’…It’s a beautiful hymn, and I often feel that way: Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. And that is a spirit that can’t be manufactured or replicated.”
Mrs. Alton identifies a number of additional benefits of attending Sacred Heart of Jesus School. One benefit involves the lifelong friendships students can form with one another. Take Mrs. Alton’s brother Jim, for example, who lives with his family in Cincinnati. “He still gets together with his Sacred Heart friends, and they’re all over the country,” Mrs. Alton says. “Like, it’s a priority for them to get together” a few times each year. On a related note, Mrs. Alton acknowledges the benefits of the “moral code” students are introduced to during their time at Sacred Heart. She clarifies that “[the moral code is] not something that’s forced down anyone’s throat, but it is modeled very much by the faculty and staff.” Another advantage of attending school at Sacred Heart, according to Mrs. Alton, is the community. “The parent community, the school board, I mean, it is such a friendly, supportive group of people. It’s very beautiful to watch it in action,” she says. Academic freedom forms yet another benefit of a Sacred Heart education. “I don’t want to get political, but the teachers [at Sacred Heart] are free to teach,” Mrs. Alton says. “They aren’t teaching to a test…So there’s a freedom here which benefits the students greatly.” Connected to the concept of academic freedom is that of “academic rigor, in a loving way.” Mrs. Alton notes, as well, that “Of course…you get 150 children in a building, [there are] going to be some behavior issues and that kind of thing. That’s part of growing up. That’s part of their learning, you know? But there is a sense of respect that is very refreshing.” In summary, “[the students at Sacred Heart are] getting a great education,” Mrs. Alton says. “You see it in terms of when—I don’t want to put down public schools because they’re full of wonderful teachers—but when someone transfers in from a public school, they tend to be a little behind. So yeah, [there are] lots of objective facts that represent how good the academic foundation [at Sacred Heart] is.”
With regard to her personal life, Mrs. Alton enjoys a variety of hobbies that no doubt stem, at least in part, from her Catholic education, a hallmark of which is the development of the whole person. She loves to read and says, with a warm laugh, that “My beach reads are, like, nonfiction theology.” Mrs. Alton acknowledges that in spite of her penchant for deep, factual works, “I do love a good novel…I recognize good writing when I see it, and I get joy, you know, when [I] read something that’s written really well.” When possible, she enjoys reading by the water, reflecting that “growing up, we vacationed in Avalon, and I love sitting on the beach with my feet in the water and reading a good book.” She credits her father with her affection for summer reading, explaining, “One summer, I think it was the summer after my eighth grade, he would pay me $20 for every book I read, and he suggested some titles that were important to him.” Mrs. Alton notes that “two [books] that he recommended and have had a lifelong impact on me” are A Separate Peace by John Knowles and Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel.
Now, Mrs. Alton and her husband tend to “vacation in northern Michigan in a little town called Glenn Arbor.” Mrs. Alton states, “My husband introduced me to Glenn Arbor because his parents have a cabin there that was built like in the 1940s by my husband’s grandfather. And it’s so beautiful. It’s right on a lake, Glenn Lake, and the colors are so—it’s remarkable how, for northern Michigan, how blue the water is, and green and aqua depending on how the sun is shining on it…I love just to read and be by the water.”
Another hobby Mrs. Alton enjoys is riding her bicycle. “I have pretty serious arthritis in my wrist, so I ride a recumbent trike so I’m not putting any pressure on my wrist,” she explains. “And I get a lot of stares—I mean, good stares. People say, ‘That looks like a lot of fun!’ And it is a lot of fun.” Additionally, Mrs. Alton notes that “I have led a Bible study at Sacred Heart for the past couple years, and I love that. I love diving into the Word with other people and hearing their insights and learning more.”
When it comes to the most important people in her life, Mrs. Alton begins by naming her husband, Jamie, along with their children and their children’s significant others. The Altons’ son, Matthew, is married to Lizzie, and their daughter, Amy, is engaged to Dalton. Mrs. Alton shares that Matthew and Lizzie “had a baby [recently], Bruin. Even though I don’t get to see the little guy very much because he lives in Utah, we get to Facetime a lot. So he’s very important to me.” Mrs. Alton notes the continued significance of her connection with her parents, as well: “You know, they’re both passed now, but my parents are very much with me. My mother only died three-and-a-half years ago, so I feel her very, very much with me.” She affirms that “All of my siblings, each in their own unique way, are very, very important to me.” Mrs. Alton shares that, sadly, “One sibling has died: Bob, Dr. Bob Stengel,” who passed away from leukemia in 2010. Mrs. Alton describes herself as being “very family-oriented” and notes her meaningful connections with her nieces and nephews. In addition, Mrs. Alton has “a very close college friend, Amy Beck,” whom she describes as being “very important to me.” The Altons are close with a young family, too, made up of members Yana, Justin, Rylan, and Riliegh.
In considering her new position as principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus School, Mrs. Alton says, “I feel extremely humbled that I’m in this position among all these great teachers who are kind of legends in their own time, and among the sisters. And people have been so gracious in welcoming me. I just feel, like, just very humbled in a good way.” Mrs. Alton is already doing her best to share that same sense of welcomeness with the entire Sacred Heart community. “To me,” she says, “it’s that you walk in the building and you feel welcomed and you feel loved.”