BENNINGTON – Few people have worked in the same place their entire careers. David Estes, who has just retired as director of the SacrÃ©-CÅur Saint-FranÃ§ois de Sales school, is one of them.
His 42-year school career began immediately after graduating from North Adams State College in 1979. He taught for several years, then was appointed principal in 1987, succeeding Sister Ellen Therese Barry. Estes was the longest-serving Catholic school principal in the Diocese of Burlington, which includes the entire state of Vermont.
âIt was a pleasant experience. I like school. School has been a part of my life for most of my life. And we have grown. When I started here there were 91 students, now we are at 198 students, âhe said. âWe have added courses throughout my tenure. We added preschool. We brought back the seventh and eighth year.
When he started school only went up to the sixth grade. “I brought the seventh and eighth grade back, so we have a pretty solid college program now, which is pretty neat.”
Thirty years after the last eighth grade class graduated in 1969, the school graduated a new eighth grade class. âIn 1999, we graduated from another eighth grade class,â he said. “We invited these alumni – it was nice.”
The school attracts students from Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, Arlington and Hoosick Falls, NY. Students from Berkshire County, Massachusetts also attended.
Estes had planned to retire last year, but COVID-19 has struck. He was persuaded to stay another year.
âWe took up the challenge, that’s for sure. It wasn’t easy, but we continued to stay open. It’s a good thing, but it was hard for everyone, âhe said. âIt was hard for the students, it was hard for the teachers because we couldn’t do things together. The students were in the same room all day, with their teachers. It was hard.
âWe couldn’t express ourselves as we wanted,â he added. âIt would be difficult for a new manager to find himself in a situation and sort out all the problems. “
However, âchildren are resilient. It’s one thing that amazed me this year, is that they were so, ‘OK, let’s do it. And they did. And they were here learning, which is so important.
Tiffany McKenna, a recent teacher at Shaftsbury Elementary School, will replace Estes as principal. She has children at the SacrÃ©-CÅur Saint FranÃ§ois de Sales school and has taught there for a year in the past.
âShe is ready to take over. I’m always afraid of forgetting to tell him something, âEstes said. âWe’ve been working on the transition since she was appointed director, but there are so many details. Little things you do automatically. To try to remember it all. But she will do a good job. I feel confident to leave the school in his hands.
Detour in Vermont
Estes grew up in North Adams, Mass., Where he received a Catholic education and was active in church life. He sang in the local band Christian Minstrels in high school and college. While in college, he taught in the religious education program at St. Francis of Assisi Church in North Adams. âSo, I always wanted to be in a Catholic school,â he said.
At the time, he thought he would end up teaching at a Catholic school in the Diocese of Springfield, western Massachusetts. However, Dr. Richard Sleeman, of Bennington, who taught at North Adams State, gave Estes’ supervisor of student education advice regarding a vacancy at Bennington.
âHe said there was a post at the Catholic School in Bennington,â Estes said. “So, I applied and here I am.”
As if finding his life’s job wasn’t enough, Estes also met his future wife, Judi, after attending mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart which, until the Catholic parishes of Bennington merged, was located on the first floor of the school. A mutual friend introduced them. Judi Estes taught at Mount Anthony Union High School for 36 years and is also retired. They live in Bennington.
After becoming a principal, Estes continued to teach. He taught math and music. In fact, he just finished teaching algebra to eighth graders. âI love teaching math,â he says. “That’s why I went to school to be a math teacher.”
He has also taught social science and technology, coached basketball and football teams, ran all of the school’s Christmas programs, and produced a college musical each spring.
Music plays an important role in education and gives children a different way of expressing themselves, he said. “And there is so much beautiful music in our world, in our Catholic world, so it’s good for the kids to be a part of it.”
Estes never thought he would become a director and had no aspirations to be. âI’ve always been a teacher, being with the kids is what’s important,â he said. “And I think that’s how you really get the pulse of the students by being with them every day.”
Retirement plans? âNot yet. I think it will come. I just want to enjoy not having to be responsible for a while, and then I’ll decide what I want to do,â he said. “Like I said, my wife is also a retired teacher, so we have some trips planned.”
Community and values
The two children of the Estes attended the SacrÃ©-CÅur Saint-FranÃ§ois de Sales school and the family paid the full tuition fees: âIt was worth every penny we paid,â he said.
The school works hard to build a community. Except during the pandemic, the whole school meets in the morning for prayer, he said.
âWe pray together, we do the reading of the day. If something big happens, if it’s someone’s birthday, the whole school will sing Happy Birthday to them, âEstes said. âIt’s so important to the growth and expansion of the Catholic school systemâ¦ just knowing that you feel connected and that you belong. “
Her son once told her: âWhen I felt most connected to God, it was when I was in school at the Sacred Heart. “
Estes said it’s a tough time to be in education. “Society, culture is very different, so we do our best to make sure our kids know what’s right and what isn’t.”
Her children who attended school in Mount Anthony were able to see problems in public school and walk away. âI knew we had done the right thing,â he said.
âThere are so many different issues that these kids are bombarded with, and it’s really hard to make sure they get the message they need to get across,â Estes said. “They need this morality, they need this basis of faith, they need this line to draw to say OK, that’s what’s right and that’s what’s wrong.”
It can be difficult for the staff because sometimes they teach very counter-cultural things. âBut I think that’s what’s missing and I think that’s what the kids need,â he said. “They must know that there is a moral compass.”
Linked to the parish
The School of the Sacred Heart of St. Francis de Sales is a ministry of the Sacred Heart of St. Francis de Sales parish in Bennington. The parish is overseen by priests from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which counts Notre Dame University among its educational efforts.
Estes has been a very involved member of the ward, active in the music ministry, a teacher in the religious education program, and a member of the parish council for 33 years.
In 2019, he received the Spirit of Holy Cross Prize awarded by the Congregation of Priests and Brothers of the Holy Cross.
âWe have no doubt that he is the most worthy of this award. When Blessed Basil Moreau founded Sainte-Croix in 1837, he had a clear vision to âmake God known, loved and servedâ. David does it daily, âsaid the Congregation.
Rev. Bob Wiseman, CSC, pastor of Sacred Heart Church of St. Francis de Sales said Estes was an excellent educator and a respected leader.
âHe has dedicated over 40 years of his life to Catholic education and to our school. He works extremely well with families and teachers,â said Wiseman. “He is clearly a model as an educator in the faith, the motto of the Order of the Holy Cross.”
“We wish him and his wonderful wife Judi the best in their retirement,” he added.
Estes served on the board of trustees of the Bennington County Choral Society and recently completed a six-year term on the Independent Schools Commission of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Jeanne Gearon, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Burlington, quoted in an article about her retirement in Diocesan magazine, said Estes embodies the definition of a “servant leader.”
âDavid’s ministry has blessed the Catholic community in the Bennington area as well as the region as a whole,â she said. âHis leadership has inspired many people to give the best of themselves in everything they do. His educational vision has allowed the Ãcole du SacrÃ©-CÅur Saint-FranÃ§ois de Sales to focus wholeheartedly on ensuring that the gifts and talents given by God to each student are nurtured and allowed to flourish.
Mark Rondeau is the editor of Banner’s Night and the editor of religion. He can be contacted at [email protected]