Over a dinner in Minneapolis, Sister Judith Schaefer’s hopes for hiring a new administrator materialized. “I was really, really impressed with her understanding about education and her professionalism,” Schaefer said of Mary Eileen Fitch, the talented teacher she’d invited to dinner. Schaefer wanted Fitch at Cotter. When Fitch agreed to work at the school system, Schaefer was overjoyed. “[Fitch] is very energetic, very detailed, really loves the kids and is very much focused on what will … help the students learn better,” Schaefer said.
Several years have passed since that recruitment for Fitch’s current role as principal and chief academic officer. Today, she is preparing to step into the role of president starting October 1. Schaefer will then serve as president emerita.
“[Fitch] is certainly devoted to the students, and having students in the system herself, she really understands what students are going through, and I think that will make her a really strong leader,” Schaefer said.
Fitch said she was humbled and excited when she learned she had been named president. “I’m excited to lead this community and to serve alongside our dedicated staff … I appreciate the confidence that the board and the pastors of our parishes have in me,” she said. She is looking forward to leading as Cotter Schools adjusts to overseeing Catholic elementary education in Winona and plans to open new buildings on its St. Teresa’s campus for the upcoming school year.
Fitch has been with Cotter for five years. “She’s fun and warm and caring, and she also is really able to see the big picture of how everything fits together,” Schaefer said. Fitch has worked for about 20 years as an educator in total. Prior to her time at Cotter, she taught at the middle and high school levels in public and private schools in the metro area and helped lead fellow teachers’ instruction. She looks back fondly on the time she spent working with high school juniors and seniors during the initial part of her career. “They are at such an exciting point in their life,” Fitch said. “They have so much possibility, and they’re interested in challenging a lot of norms, and they’re interested in exploring new ideas and suggesting we do things differently. And it’s kind of fun to be around that excitement and to be able to help students realize what their gifts are and how they can use them both to improve their own lives and to improve the lives of others.”
When Fitch came to serve at Cotter, it was not the first time she set foot in the school system or lived in Winona. She grew up in the city and graduated from Cotter. “I feel like the teachers were so supportive, and I have great memories of them going outside of the classroom to attend all the co-curricular activities you were a part of,” she said. A strong sense of community has been her favorite part of the school system as a student, alum and staff member. “You feel like you belong here,” she said. “And there’s something very important about being connected to a community, and recognizing that you are responsible to other people … that you can rely on them, and they can rely on you. And that together we are better.”
A highlight of Fitch’s time as a staff member to date has been collaborating with colleagues, students, families and Cotter’s benefactors. “Even in light of COVID, I feel like there has been a strong sense of people willing to step in and help out in whatever capacity is needed,” she said.
As Fitch gets ready to be president, she is setting goals of carrying on Cotter’s tradition of more than 110 years, providing innovative programming for students, growing connections with the Winona community and fostering relationships with alumni. She will also strive to meet students’ needs in an engaging, relevant way. “Part of my goal is that both every member of our community sees themselves as a valuable member in the community, and that in particular, we continue to live up to our mission, which is challenging students to use their gifts in service to others,” she said.