Sister Mary Agnetis: The Quintessential Servant Leader
When asked to describe a servant leader, one might hear phrases such as “one dedicated to the needs of others” or “someone who leads by example, not by mandate” or perhaps simply “someone who genuinely cares more for others than themselves.” Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term servant-leadership in his groundbreaking 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” He defines it as a non-traditional leadership philosophy embedded in a set of behaviors and practices that place the primary emphasis on the well-being of those being served. He identifies the five most prominent characteristics as: valuing people – servant leaders value people for who they are, not just for what they give to the organization; humility – servant leaders do not promote themselves; they put other people first; listening – servant leaders listen receptively and nonjudgmentally and seek first to understand, and then to be understood; trust – servant leaders give trust to others; and caring – servant leaders have people and purpose in their heart and truly care for the people they serve.
Although this concept might have been a “groundbreaking theory” in the 1970s, it was merely the way of life for Sister Mary Agnetis as she took the reins of Notre Dame Academy in 1906. Seeing the value of every person, practicing the power of humility as a way of daily living, always listening with concern, trusting her students and faculty to do their best and showing through her words and actions the care and love she had for all she met, was simply the way
Sr Mary Agnetis lived every single day during her 95 years on earth.
Born in 1879 as Anna Frances Smith, she was the 4th in a family which would eventually number 11 children. Her early childhood was spent in the neighborhood surrounding Philadelphia St. in Covington. Baptized at St. John’s Church, she attended grades 1-4 at St. Aloysius, after which the family moved “out to the country” and she finished her grade school education at St. Joseph in Cold Springs. Even as a young girl, Anna felt the calling to devote herself to the service of others. After graduating from St. Joseph grade school, she traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and completed her high school education as an aspirant with the Sisters of Notre Dame.
On February 2, 1897, at the age of 17, Anna entered the cloisters of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later that year, on August 30, she took her holy vows as a novice and took the name Sr. Mary Agnetis. Two and one-half years later, Sr. Mary Agnetis pledged her life to God on January 3, 1900, as she pronounced her first vows as a Sister of Notre Dame.
After teaching grade school for 3 years in the Cleveland and Toledo area, Sr. Agnetis joyfully returned to the province of Covington in 1903 and taught grades 6-8 at the Notre Dame Grade School for the next three years. On January 1, 1905, Sr. Mary Agnetis made her final Profession of Vows in the chapel of the Notre Dame Academy and Covent on 5th Street in downtown Covington, just blocks away from her place of birth.
In 1906, Sr. Agnetis was given the task of starting a high school, to reach beyond grade school and continue the educational opportunities for young ladies. This “task” would define the life of Sr. Agnetis from that point forward and would start her journey as a true servant leader for all of the young women whose lives she touched. Appointed as Instructor and Directress, Agnetis began with 6 students in the fall of 1906 and built an educational leadership legacy spanning 68 years and beyond. “From the moment Sr. Mary Agnetis started the high school, she became part of the soul of the academy, so dedicated to its growth materially, spiritually and academically, that she grew to become the personification of Notre Dame Academy. Every student who attended NDA from 1906 until well into the 1960s has gone away with a part of Sister’s personality, for these – the ideal of the Virgin Mary, the spirituality of vigorously living the Mass, the culture of the classics and the refinement of true Christian womanly living – are as much a part of the academy curriculum as they are of Sr. Mary Agnetis’s life.” (KY Post, Jack Wessling, 1960). In 1920, Sister Mary Agnetis was officially appointed as principal of the high school. During the next few years, Sister combined her love for leading and teaching the NDA students with her thirst for personal knowledge and self-improvement, as she became a student herself once again, and received her BA from Xavier University in 1924.
By the early 1920s, under the leadership of Sr. Mary Agnetis, Notre Dame Academy High School had secured its place as the premier educational facility for young women, a legacy that continues to this day.
In 1923, the high school received full accreditation for high school by the Kentucky Education
Association as one of only three accredited Catholic high schools in Kentucky. It received an “A” rating, which the school has maintained up to present time. In 1924, the high school was accepted by the Southern Association of Colleges and High Schools and maintains that affiliation up to present time. In 1938, the high school was accepted as a practice teaching school for Villa Madonna College’s secondary education majors, with several instructors in each department certified as “critic teachers”. And, in 1943, the high school received a “Superior School” rating from Southern Association of Colleges and High Schools, the first of many superior ratings received throughout the years.