By Sue Botos
While recently serving with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers’ China Teachers Program in Zhongshan, China, Magnificat President Renata Rafferty read about the all-girls Catholic high school and knew she had found her calling.
“In March I fell in love with Magnificat while reading in my apartment in China, and I was moved deeply,” recalled Rafferty during her installation ceremony at the school’s performing arts center on Aug. 27. She added that while there are other fine high schools in the Cleveland area, what brought her to Magnificat was the fact that it was the “only school dedicated to forming young women in the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat.”
A well-known expert in the field of philanthropy, Rafferty is Magnificat’s first lay president, beginning her tenure in July after Carol Anne Smith, H.M., stepped down after six years. She has headed an international consulting firm and has served as personal adviser to some of the most prosperous foundations and families around the world, ranging from Pepperdine University to Cirque du Soleil. In addition, she was special counsel to both the Foreign Investment Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Economic Affairs for the Republic of Poland, where she was a Fulbright scholar at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
Rafferty, a Chicago native, said she has spent most of her adult life in Massachusetts, California and Indiana, but is now a “proud Rocky River resident” and vows that her “sole professional commitment is to Magnificat.” She recently answered some questions from West Life about what her new role means, and her future plans for the school.
West Life: You graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school. Did this influence your decision to come to Magnificat?
Rafferty: Having graduated from an all-girl Catholic high school, I was especially interested in the position at Magnificat. My own alma mater (Mother Theodore Guerin), outside Chicago, lost focus on its mission in the decades since I graduated, and ultimately joined with a former all-boys Catholic school. It is now coed. I have no question that my Catholic single-gender high school experience has a profound effect on how I performed as a college and graduate student, and who I am today as a woman of faith and as a professional.
West Life: What does an all-girls (or all-boys) school have to offer today’s young people?
Rafferty: First, research has shown that girls perform better academically in a single-gender environment than they do in a coeducational institution.
Second, the absence of boys in a school allows girls the opportunity to focus in the classroom without the distraction of socialization issues that naturally arise during adolescence.
Third, for girls particularly, the single-gender environment ensures that girls will have the opportunities (by necessity) to engage at every level of leadership in both academic and co-curricular activities.
West Life: How are things going so far, and what are your first impressions of Magnificat?
Rafferty: I was a bit overwhelmed in my first few weeks here. I likened the experience to trying to take a drink from a fire hose! The challenges of coming up to speed within such a complex institution were offset by the warmth, intelligence, good humor and utter professionalism of the women and men at Magnificat with whom I work on a day-to-day basis. And above all, commitment to mission is the very bones of the school and the souls of all who are part of the Magnificat community. That has made the greatest impression on me since my first visit to Magnificat last spring.
West Life: What did you bring from your China experience that will assist you in your new role?
Rafferty: My experience living and teaching in China has made me absolutely appreciate the values of an American education – where one is free to pursue one’s academic interest and talents. Our freedoms as Americans – especially the right to assemble, the right to free speech, and the right and obligation to choose our leadership – can never be taken for granted. As educators and Americans, we have a responsibility to help our young people understand both the privileges and obligations of our freedoms … freedoms denied to many around the globe.
And most importantly, being at a Catholic school, helping students understand how precious freedom of religion is. Expressing one’s faith in words and actions is a right and a capability never to be squandered. And that one can absolutely preach gospel – using words only when necessary (in the words of St. Francis of Assisi), is not only possible but fundamental if one considers oneself a person of faith, whatever the faith.
West Life: What are some of your plans for Magnificat’s future?
Rafferty: First and foremost, my plan is to uphold our unwavering mission of educating young women holistically to learn, lead and serve in the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat. More practically, my role is to assist in the development of the school’s next long-term plan … that must anticipate and support the needs of both our world and our Catholic Church over the coming years, and the evolving leadership role women will play in each. Lastly, I’d love to be able to get to as many co-curricular events as I possibly can to see our young women in action – whether it’s out serving the community, on the playing field, in their home parishes or faith communities, or in the theater. They’re extraordinary women and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.