A simple request from her pastor launched a career in education that spans decades. MaryBeth Mueller, superintendent of Catholic schools and Executive Director of the Division of Education and Evangelization for the Diocese of Phoenix, marked 30 years of service in the diocese this summer.
Growing up in North Dakota, Mueller remembers the day her pastor asked if she would teach religious education. She said yes and at 15, began teaching second-grade children about the sacraments. Two years later, that segued into lifeguarding and teaching swimming at the local pool.
“I loved working with the kids,” Mueller said. The lifeguarding job helped her work her way through the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota, where she majored in chemistry. Later on, she earned a master’s and an education specialist degree, and became principal of an elementary school in Duluth.
After moving to Arizona, Mueller started out at Seton Catholic Preparatory in 1986 where she served as a chemistry teacher and assistant principal. She went on to become assistant superintendent for Catholic schools and then was named superintendent in 1992.
In 2003, Mueller’s job description was considerably widened when she became executive director of the Division of Education and Evangelization for the diocese. She was asked if she might be willing to give up her role as superintendent since the director position was enormous. “And I couldn’t,” Mueller said. “The schools are my lifeblood. I’m happy to continue to do both.” The roles are intimately linked, she said. “Forming children in the faith is all about evangelization.”
The sheer numbers are daunting: 34 schools; 26 preschools; 14,750 students and about 1,100 teachers and faculty across the diocese. That’s in addition to overseeing the Kino Catechetical Institute, the Office of Marriage and Respect Life, parish catechetical programs and the Office of Safe Environment Training.
“You can’t do this job without time for prayer daily, without Mass — I can’t get there every day, but I do try — and surrounding yourself with positive people,” Mueller said, adding that her parents set the tone with a strong work ethic.
Among the highlights of her time with the diocese, Mueller pointed to the opening of several new schools: Notre Dame Preparatory and elementary schools St. John Bosco and St. John XXIII. In 2018, the diocese will open Saint John Paul II High School in Avondale. The day The Catholic Sun sat down with Mueller, she was preparing for an orientation meeting for new Catholic school employees and looking forward to welcoming the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, who will lead the new high school.
In 2016, Mueller and her husband, Bill, received Notre Dame Preparatory’s “Patron Saint Award” that recognized her efforts to help found and develop the school, and his work in counseling and behavior health at NDP.
Although she’s received recognition across the country for her work, she’s quick to acknowledge the source of her strength.
“I don’t think it’s my accomplishments. I really think I was doing God’s work,” Mueller said. “That call to serve — God gave me the grace to do it. It’s really not about me. It all comes back to really trying to live the faith, using the gifts I have.”
Among the achievements during her tenure, she noted the increase in teachers’ compensation. When she began, teachers were earning about 65 percent of their public-school counterparts. Today, that’s increased to 92 percent.
The advent of Catholic higher education in the diocese has been a significant development too, allowing students to obtain degrees from Catholic institutions and Catholic school staff to pursue advanced degrees and development. Benedictine University and the University of Mary both have local campuses.
Looking back through the years, she said one of the developments that pleases her the most is the increase in the schools’ catholicity. “That’s the most important reason we have Catholic schools is that we are forming children in the faith. That’s really my passion,”