YOUNGSTOWN DIOCESE Educator carries a lesson in faith
Youngstown's Catholic schools leader leaves for Chicago, confident that God will guide him.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Fraught with anguish, grieving his wife's sudden death, Nicholas Wolsonovich walked the streets of his North Side neighborhood, praying for answers.
"I was all alone and walking my dogs one night, and I was in tears," he remembers.
"I was repeating over and over again, 'I miss you. I love you.'"
That was nearly three years ago, and Wolsonovich said he still misses and loves his wife, Mary Ellen, who died of hepatitis B during liver transplant surgery Oct. 13, 1998.
It was two days before their 27th wedding anniversary.
"You sort of sit back and say, 'Why make any plans in life?'" he said. "Mary Ellen and I were planning for this and that, and just like that, she's gone."
But Wolsonovich, veteran schools superintendent for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, said he had a strong ally: God.
Moving forward: In the months since, Wolsonovich has pulled his life together, remarried, and now is heading off to the biggest challenge of his professional life.
In July, he leaves his hometown to become schools superintendent of the 130,000-pupil Archdiocese of Chicago, the largest Catholic school system in the nation.
He'll take with him 35 years of experience in the Youngstown diocese's 14,500-pupil schools, the last 16 as superintendent.
But, more important, he'll take a strong, unwavering faith in God.
"It's just phenomenal what has happened in my life the last three years," Wolsonovich, 57, said in his office last week, his last week on the job in Youngstown.
"It almost feels as if God is doing these things. It's hard to believe that with all of the billions of people that have ever lived, that there could be such a personal God to pay so much attention to one person. It's so incredulous, yet in my personal life, I totally believe it."
So it's not hard to understand that Wolsonovich heads to the Windy City unintimidated by the tremendous challenges facing Chicago's parochial schools.
"I'm not anxious," he said. "I know it's a big job. It's enormous, but I really feel as if I'm up to the task."
His area roots: What's tougher to handle, Wolsonovich said, is leaving Youngstown.
Wolsonovich grew up across from The Rayen School on Benita Avenue on the city's North Side and still lives in the neighborhood.
The son of strong Byzantine Catholic parents, Wolsonovich graduated from Rayen in 1962 and entered the seminary in Stamford, Conn., to become a priest.
Nearly four years into the seminary, Wolsonovich said he struggled with some of the restrictions and considered leaving.
"I remember sitting in my car one night and wondering, 'What am I going to do?'" he said. "So I decided that I was going to go back to the seminary. As soon as I decided, I got this awful gut feeling, like twisting, and I realized that wasn't the answer."
So he left the seminary and instead pursued a career in education, a career that began as a teacher at St. Edward School on the North Side and led him to the diocese superintendency in 1985.
Service: Wolsonovich, who has three grown children, said it was his way to serve the church outside the priesthood.
"A lot of times, we think of stewardship in terms of giving money to the church," he said. "And that's important, but I don't think it's the most important part. I think the most important parts are time and talent. You should be using your time and talent to build up the kingdom of God."
And that's what Wolsonovich said he has done in his 31/2 decades in the Youngstown diocese.
He said his major accomplishment as superintendent was a long-term campaign to improve education in the Youngstown diocese.
The campaign, dubbed Cornerstones of Excellence, included rewriting the diocese's curriculum and increasing the amount of training for teachers.
The effort also involved adding more instructional days to the Catholic school calendar and encouraging the diocese's 47 elementary schools and five high schools to adopt year-round class schedules.
In the process, Wolsonovich has become one of the nation's top advocates for expanding the number of days pupils are in the classroom. He is president of the Ohio Association for Year-Round Education and a trustee in the national association.
"I think by talking about it, people have come to appreciate it more, but there's an awful lot of people who don't, and who don't like it," he said.
"There's a lot of resistance, but I don't think there's a question that it's going to happen."
Sticking with doctrine: Most important, Wolsonovich said the Cornerstones campaign re-emphasized the "Catholic" in Catholic schools.
"People know that if we truly are to be an alternative to the public schools, we have to be what we say we are: purely, totally Catholic in everything we do," he said.
The mission to remain Catholic, along with money, are the top challenges facing the diocesan schools, he said.
"We must be free and easy talking about our faith, and we must be proud of it," he said. "I think if you get that in place, the money follows."
Money woes led to the closing of five inner-city Youngstown parochial schools during Wolsonovich's tenure. The closings were the most difficult decisions he had to make, he said.
"It really hurts because it lessens our ability to touch those kids that need to be touched," he said.
"One of my biggest disappointments is all of the people who have moved out of the city of Youngstown and not stuck here and tried to make a go of it," he added. "Not that people don't have a right to leave. They certainly do. It depends on the motivation. If it's because -- and it's probably risky to say this -- but if it's based on race, I have a problem with that."
Sure, he could have fled to the suburbs years ago. And sure, some may think he's foolish for not.
"But I hope I'm a fool for Christ," he said.
So, Wolsonovich now moves to a downtown Chicago apartment. He'll keep his home on Youngstown's North Side, planning to return when he retires.
But no one knows better than Wolsonovich that even the best-laid plans don't always work out.
"You think you know what you'll do, but God has his own plans," he said. "You never know."