Article from FAITH Grand Rapids Magazine, issue September 2023
By Sara Davies Aldworth | Photography by Rob Schumaker
At the two diocesan high schools, President Terry Tyrrell at Catholic Central, and President/CEO Jill Annable at West Catholic are modeling what it means to live out the mission of Catholic education. “God has richly blessed both Catholic Central and West Catholic high schools with faith-filled, faith-forward, visionary leaders who are recognized and respected across the national Catholic school landscape, experts in best practice and tremendous collaborators,” says Dave Faber, superintendent. “Terry and Jill elevate the faith and professional practice of everyone they encounter; they connect in meaningful ways within the Grand Rapids community and are determined to work together to grow the Catholic Church within the diocese through their respective Catholic high schools.”
'ONE MAN CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, AND EVERY MAN SHOULD TRY'
To understand Terry Tyrrell, president of Catholic Central, it helps to go back to Belleville, Illinois – a small town on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. Raised in a traditional Irish-Catholic family, Terry’s parents ensured their children had a strong grounding in the faith. This included enrollment in their parish elementary school and continued when Terry entered St. Louis University High School.
At the all-boys Jesuit school, Terry remembers how tough it could be. In addition to rigorous academics, there was fierce competition to make athletic teams. By his junior year, Terry had been cut from basketball and admits he was a good, but not great, student. “I still hadn’t found myself,” he says. But that all changed after Assistant Principal Dick Keefe called Terry into his office.
“I remember seeing a print hanging on his wall,” Terry shares. “It was a painting of John F. Kennedy in a boat, with the words ‘One Man Can Make a Difference and Every Man Should Try.’ To my surprise, he told me he saw leadership potential in me. He invited me to be one of two students to sit on the school board’s academic subcommittee for a two-year term, and I accepted.”
This experience became a launch pad for Terry, as his gifts of empathy and service were drawn out and developed. By his senior year, he began leading retreats for his classmates, became a peer mentor to underclassmen and started working with the local homeless population. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that invitation from Mr. Keefe tapped into my vocation as a Catholic educator,” Terry remembers.
‘YOU’RE THE HAPPIEST’
After graduating high school, Terry earned his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University. Even though he was involved in the Newman Center on campus, he felt a distinct sense of loss. “I don’t think I could have put it into words then, but I missed the holistic education I received from my Catholic schooling,” he explains.
So when he had the opportunity to return to his alma mater as part of a post-college service program for the alumni of Jesuit institutions, he jumped at the chance. Living in community with other volunteers, growing in the Ignatian tradition and serving students lit a fire in Terry.
“It was one of the best years of my life,” Terry remembers. “I fell in love with teaching.” Other people could see that passion, too. He visited some college friends in Washington, D.C. “They were in their first jobs and not necessarily liking them much,” he says. “One of my buddies said to me, ‘It’s funny – you’re making the least amount of money compared to all of us, but you’re the happiest.’ It was true. I was following God’s lead and excited about where he was taking me.”
A LEAP OF FAITH
Happiness also came in the form of Marygrace, who Terry met right before he moved to Washington, D.C., to take a teaching job. “God’s got a sense of humor with that timing!” he says with a laugh. They dated long distance and eventually married, relocating to Chicago as she pursued her post-graduate education.
Terry began working at St. Ignatius College Prep in the city, teaching a few classes and working in student services. That’s when he felt the call to expand his vocation and lean into his God-given gifts even more.
“People kept telling me I’d be a good administrator,” he says. He took it to prayer, considering what it would mean to chart a new course.
“My faith journey is totally interconnected with being in a Catholic high school and I discovered that the call changes over time,” he reflects. After careful discernment, Terry earned a master’s in secondary school administration from Loyola University and became an assistant principal at St. Ignatius. Several years later, that discernment became even more important.
He and Marygrace were now parents. Deciding to change jobs affected more than just the two of them. “Discernment is difficult,” Terry says. “And it’s even harder when you’re doing it with your spouse.” Working through the Examen, an Ignatian spiritual exercise Terry still prays daily, the Tyrrells put their trust in God. Terry accepted an offer to lead St. Xavier High School and move the family to Cincinnati.
It was a leap of faith. But Terry’s uncertainty melted away on his first day as principal. When he walked into his office, he was startled to see the same picture that hung on Mr. Keefe’s wall all those years ago. “It was one of the surest signs I have received from God that I was following my calling and living out his will,” Terry confides.
THE MOVE TO MICHIGAN
From St. Louis to Chicago to Cincinnati, Terry has used his gifts and talents in service to Catholic schools. However, he’s been drawn to one special place all his life: West Michigan.
“My family has a long history with Grand Haven,” Terry says with a smile. “My mother’s side has 100 years of vacation history here, and I’ve visited every summer since I was a child.” When the job posting for president of Catholic Central caught his eye, he knew he had to check it out.
Thankfully, the gift of discerning God’s will and responding to his graces has become a finely honed skill in Terry’s spiritual toolbox. With the prayerful support and sacrifices of Marygrace, a talented school leader in her own right, Terry was named the first president of Catholic Central in March of 2021 and began the role in July of that year.
Today, the family is flourishing in Grand Rapids. Eldest daughter Mara, a sophomore at Catholic Central, commutes with her dad to school each day – a treasured time for conversation and connection. Terry is excited to add daughter Eleanor (an eighth grader at St. Thomas the Apostle School) to the morning drive, too, as she takes on an advanced geometry class at Catholic Central offered to middle schoolers. While it will be some time before two sons, Clarke (grade 5) and Hugh (grade 3) join the carpool, they’re already excited to be future Cougars.
“My priorities are faith, family and Catholic Central, in that order,” says Terry. “My life was changed by Catholic education, and I thank God for the privilege to be here making a direct, positive impact on students during a critical time in their lives.”
A FALCON THROUGH AND THROUGH
Over on the west side of the city, Jill Annable is settling into her second semester as president and CEO of West Catholic High School. As a West Catholic graduate, and the child of West Catholic grads, she never expected to find herself in this position. In fact, she has a rejection letter from West Catholic hanging on her office wall.
“When I first became a teacher in 2006, the competition for jobs was fierce,” she remembers. “I had applied to West Catholic and was turned down. The public school job I eventually landed had more than 200 applicants. I was grateful to be there and thought I had found my path.”
For the next nine years, that was true. But God has a funny way of turning things upside down.
“I got a call from my former English teacher, Diane Hood Hood. She heard I had gone into teaching and wondered if I would like to interview at West Catholic.” Jill felt she had nothing to lose – after all, she was happy in her current role.
The interview changed everything.
“After just one hour with the team, I wanted the job badly,” she says. “I think it was the first time I really felt the mission and that something bigger than me was happening. I went home crying because I knew it would be a giant pay cut. I had to sell my car. My kids were little and life was busy, but I just knew I had to be here.” Nearly a decade after first applying at West Catholic and being turned down, Jill was hired.
A SAINT BY HER SIDE
For the next year, Jill embraced the experience of sharing her faith alongside her students. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have a division between their work life and the rest of their life,” she says. “But I discovered that living the mission of the Church and teaching in a Catholic school meant not having that separation.”
During this time, West Catholic’s patron saint, John Paul II, also made a profound and lasting impact on Jill. “I have such a connection to him,” she shares. “It came unexpectedly. I didn’t ask him to be my personal patron, but I started seeing his influence everywhere in my life.” Well known for his love of academics, athletics and family, the saint kept Jill company through several unexpected career shifts.
“When I [began teaching] at West Catholic, I intended to retire from there!” Jill says. But God had a different plan. The Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids opened a position for assistant superintendent of Catholic schools. With her master’s degree from Grand Valley State University in curriculum and instruction, Jill was intrigued by the possibility of writing the curriculum for all the Catholic schools in the diocese. After interviewing, she was offered the role and accepted with enthusiasm.
“I tackled the curriculum from preschool through 12th grade in every subject area. It was a multi-year project with collaboration from teachers across the diocese. Though I missed being in the classroom, it was such a privilege to help elevate all of our schools.”
Then came the pandemic. While many schools across the country struggled, Jill notes that our diocesan schools opened as scheduled at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year and continued to deliver high-quality instruction, staying on pace with the newly developed curriculum. The success of our schools drew national attention, and Jill was recruited to serve with the National Catholic Educational Association, which she did for nearly two years.
As the pandemic dragged on, Jill found herself visiting the St. John Paul II adoration chapel at West Catholic more often. Kneeling there, she welcomed the quiet peace of the chapel and listened for God’s voice. “I felt that God was preparing me for something different, but I didn’t know what,” she says. “I asked John Paul II for his intercession. I prayed the Lord would send me where he needed me.”
The answer became clearer when Cynthia Kneibel, former president/CEO of West Catholic, announced her plans for retirement. “I thought, ‘This is it’,” Jill says. “All the things I had learned at the national level, like marketing and enrollment, were coming together with my work in curriculum and the classroom.” After an extensive interview process, Jill was offered the role and accepted it with a grateful heart. At the helm of West Catholic, Jill expected to lead the mission of forming disciples of Christ through a dynamic, excellence-driven education. But she didn’t expect all the different ways God would call her to live the mission – including the addition of two international students under her own roof, living alongside her children Lauren and Bradley (grades 7 and 4 at St. Anthony of Padua School).
One student, Fedir, came to West Catholic to escape the war in Ukraine. “My kids love him,” Jill says. “He’s so social and funny. But he’s also experienced some daunting challenges. So, it’s shifted some of the conversations around our dinner table to talk about our faith and what is really important in life and what we’re called to do.”
Her other “bonus kid” graduated from West Catholic this past May. “Juan joined us at the same time as Fedir,” Jill shares. She met Juan’s father, also a teacher, during a consult-ing project with Notre Dame overseas. He mentioned to Jill that Juan may not be making the best choices for his future. She immediately recommended sending Juan to West Catholic as part of the international program. At first, he laughed it off.
But by the autumn of 2022, Jill received a call asking if she would bring Juan into her home. Sure enough, Juan blazed a trail at West Catholic as he made new friends and adjusted to life in the United States. He discovered his talent in track, clocking the fastest time in the 400-meter dash. He joined the esports team. Most importantly, he began to think differently about himself and his future.
This fall, Juan will attend Aquinas College and Fedir will return to West Catholic for his senior year. “We’ve got a goofy little hybrid family,” Jill says. “But this is one of the reasons I’ve grown to love the international program – I’m curious about other people and their experiences. I love to see the truth, beauty and goodness in others. And it’s my job to pray and make every decision seeking out Christ.”
Reflecting on her journey thus far, Jill takes a deep breath: “I’ve discovered that following and accepting God’s plan for us is a lifelong journey. There’s a lot of messiness along the way, but there’s also a lot of peace in knowing that I am where God has called me to be. It meant I had to sell the car. It meant I had to buy more beds so I could bring more kids into the house. But hearing God’s voice in the silence and letting him carry me ... I wouldn’t have it any other way.”