Maestri Named to Lead Schools
He Will Keep His Job As Church Spokesman

By Brian Thevenot and Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orleans]
August 13, 2004

The Archdiocese of New Orleans on Thursday announced the appointment of the Rev. William Maestri, a theologian and policy specialist, as schools superintendent, with responsibility for more than 50,000 students in more than 100 Catholic schools in the metro area.

Maestri, who is also a teacher and writer, becomes the first priest to hold the job in almost 30 years.

In his role as the chief public spokesman for the past two years, he has become for many people the face of the archdiocese. He will retain his post of communications director. His two-year tenure in that job has come at a time of intense media scrutiny over priest sexual abuse scandals and as-yet largely unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation authorizing private school vouchers.

Maestri replaces Rene Coman, who announced his retirement about four months ago.

Before his appointment in 1998, Coman had worked for three decades in public schools as a teacher and administrator, retiring as an assistant superintendent in the New Orleans public school system.

Maestri, by contrast, has spent much of his career as a scholar and writer. He is a bioethicist by training and a faculty member at Notre Dame Seminary.

He taught and coached part time for more than 25 years at the now-defunct Mercy Academy and at Dominican High School. He has also taught on the college level, the archdiocese said.

Maestri acknowledged that he represents a nontraditional hire in that he is not a career educator such as Coman, but he said he matches the particular hurdles facing Catholic schools today.

"I think it's important to see the major challenge facing schools in the archdiocese is not education itself. We have quality education," Maestri said. "Our challenges lie in other areas, such as cooperation with the larger community, reaching out for more partnerships with public schools and reaching out civically and finding ways to make the archdiocesan system have a greater contribution to overall community."

Archbishop Alfred Hughes and the Rev. Neal McDermott, executive director of the archdiocese's Department of Christian Formation, stressed their desire to appoint a leader adept in public relations and policy. They minimized the notion that Maestri doesn't have equally extensive experience as an educator or administrator.

"He's taught in high school, college, major and minor seminary. He's taught at Tulane and Loyola law schools," said McDermott, who is Maestri's immediate superior. "He's been in education a long time.

"He's a remarkable man, an avid reader. From that standpoint, I have no problems with his academic qualifications," he said.

Maestri was the unanimous selection Wednesday night of a 12-member search committee that had winnowed a field of 11 candidates down to three, McDermott said.

A search process asked parents, teachers, principals and others what they most wanted in a superintendent.

They wanted a priest or a sister, "someone with real sense of Catholic identity," McDermott said. And they wanted an expert in the issues surrounding school choice, he added.

In announcing the appointment, both Maestri and Hughes stressed the need to bolster financing of "inner-city" schools -- meaning the 24 Catholic schools in New Orleans.

Maestri has played a lead role in the pursuit of voucher legislation, which has been declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the movement in Louisiana, as in most other states, has been beaten back by a fiercely opposed public-school establishment.

The archdiocese has succeeded in securing a publicly financed preschool program, however, which Maestri touts as a successful example of what a full-scale voucher program could accomplish.

Hughes highlighted priorities for the Catholic school system, which he said were hashed out in meetings across the system during the superintendent search.

He stressed that officials insist "Catholic schools remain Catholic" even though 60 percent of the students in the system's New Orleans schools are non-Catholic.

He also said they must remain affordable to the poor and middle class.

Hughes singled out the New Orleans schools, saying the church's mission to minister to the poor "transcends race, religion and economics."

He called public financing for low-income parents seeking private schools a "justice issue," indicating Maestri would devote much of his time pushing for such legislation and trying to soften the now acrimonious relationship with the public-school establishment.

Maestri said he has been encouraged by recent discussions with New Orleans public schools Superintendent Tony Amato.

Asked why he believed he could strike up a cooperative relationship with the public schools chief, who has publicly opposed vouchers, he quipped, "I'm a firm believer in prayer and sacrifice."

Brian Thevenot can be reached at or (504) 826-3482. Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344.