The mantra “education never ends” is embodied in Faribault.
Within the walls of Bethlehem Academy live 144 years of continued Catholic school education. Today within those same confinements is a leader whose thirst for education is everlasting.
Melinda “Mindy” Reeder was hired as Bethlehem Academy principal/president in the summer of 2020. Her first day on the job was July 1. She replaced Dr. Chuck Briscoe, who retired after four years at the helm.
Reeder was no stranger to BA. She previously worked across the street for a five-year stint in the mid 2000s as advancement and admissions director at Divine Mercy Catholic School, which serves kindergartners through sixth graders.
Returning to a familiar community in a new capacity as BA president/principal made sense. It was a straight line to draw on her career map. It’s a map otherwise filled with twists and turns befitting of a go-kart track.
Uniting in faith
Reeder grew up as Melinda Biers in the “Halloween Capital of the World,” Anoka, Minnesota.
A natural communicator like herself gravitated to studying journalism in college.
Reeder’s compass pointed northwest to the University of Minnesota, Morris. Her program started her out with general coursework in Morris before finishing the last two years of her degree at the U of M’s main Twin Cities campus. As an undergrad, she met fellow Morris student, Jim Reeder. One thing the two eventual lovebirds bonded over was their Christian faith. Jim was raised Catholic and Mindy a Missouri Synod Lutheran.
The two later wed, and while Mindy was pregnant with their first of three children, Jake, she went through Right of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) to convert to Catholicism. She noticed a Catholic Mass was similar to a Missouri Synod Mass.
“I knew some couples would keep doing their traditions like she would go to a Lutheran church and he would go to a Catholic church, or vice versa. In fact, my mom was raised Catholic and it was just flipped for her. I just felt it was really important our family go to church together.”
While making this transition, Reeder entered the workforce by putting her journalism degree to use working at the Faribault Daily News. She most enjoyed writing feature stories. The opportunity to share someone’s story with the world was a treasured privilege.
Reeder’s next turn on the map led to the world of marketing and public relations. She worked for a national organization that helped build large trade shows.
Disney was among its clientele.
“We’d spend a year on what the booth is going to look like. We’d have designers who’d build gargoyles and everything. They did these gorgeous booths, they hired the actors to be at the show. We traveled all over the nation. Las Vegas and Anaheim are two of the popular areas we’d do shows at.”
The buildup to the day of the show was fulfilling work. However, it tended to be a short-lived joy.
The booths were deconstructed right away after a show concluded. No portions of the set-ups were reused. It seemed as if hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work from her and her team were poured into a fleeting moment.
“It hit me pretty hard that I just couldn’t continue to work in an environment where everything was thrown away,” Reeder said. “I started looking to where I felt I was giving more purposefully in my life.”
She began to remember premonitions she had in college. Reeder felt called to use her talent for writing for the Catholic church.
Her next move didn’t involve writing, specifically, but she found a faith-based career path.
Reeder latched on with the nonprofit organization Catholic Workman. While there, she was part of a national Catholic youth leadership program. That role was an entryway into working with and educating youth. Reeder flourished in it.
It wasn’t the path her journalism background portended, but she was content to pursue it further.
To properly educate others meant she needed more education of her own. Reeder went back to school to earn a master’s degree in, you guessed it, education, from St. Catherine University. Later, she’d earn an educational leadership and administration degree from the University of St. Thomas.
While taking classes in the mid 2000s, Reeder found part-time work with advancement, marketing and fundraising with Catholic schools across southern Minnesota.
She started at Holy Cross in Webster and arrived at Divine Mercy in Faribault soon after.
When her education was complete, Reeder became a teacher and shared principal at Most Holy Redeemer in Montgomery and Our Lady of the Prairie in Belle Plaine.
In five years as a teacher, she taught music, fifth- and sixth-grade math and started a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program.
“In all those capacities, what I loved about it, was really connecting with youth at any age level and inspiring them to be greater,” Reeder said. “Helping them realize we all have to have a growth mindset to see that we start where we’re at, but how can we get better? You move that forward so we can really engage our brain and become a more versatile person.”
Teaching was all that was on her radar until Most Holy Redeemer’s pastor at the time, Cory Rohlfing, had other ideas.
“I just asked her to consider applying for a principal’s job,” Rohlfing said. “We dialogued for a while. It piqued her interest. She just thought she’d go through the application process.”
Reeder did go through the application process. Then she went through the job acceptance process.
“At first I said ‘no’ and we talked for quite a while,” Reeder said. “After a couple conversations I decided to follow that path. And who do you think is the pastor here now in Faribault?”
It’s none other than Rohlfing, who is in his second year as pastor at Divine Mercy Catholic Church.
He’s among the community members in Faribault that made coming full circle to BA, where Jake graduated in 2012, was a no-brainer for Reeder.
“Even though he’s not part of the governance model of Bethlehem Academy, it’s that connection. Between the old community connections, people who are currently on the board here. Sister Mary Margaret (Murphy) was one of the Sinsinawan nuns, she volunteers here now and was my children’s principal. Then father Cory, (DMCS principal) Gina Ashley and all the community members, how could I say no?”
BA was a girls school until 1935.
“What I really realized is how beautiful the Catholic faith is at embracing the role of women and how strong women are in the Catholic faith,” Reeder said. “That might sound funny, but for centuries nuns have started schools and hospitals around our nation. They were, initially, some of the highest academic learners for women and one of the main ways women received their academics back before schools went from all-men schools.
“That’s one of the things I also love about Bethlehem Academy because we started educating women when other schools were not educating women. Our story at Bethlehem Academy I think is just really rich for our Catholic faith and for honoring all that women bring to the world.”
Over a decade of experience in Catholic schools prepared her for her return to Faribault.
“As far as skillset: high energy, work ethic, not afraid of putting in hours,” Rohlfing said. “Loves education, loves to be a student.“
Administrating in an
Nothing could quite prepare her for being an administrator in the era of COVID-19.
She’s worked side by side with Gina Ashley to create a safe in-person learning environment for her students, as well as online learning for those who choose.
An enrollment of under 300 students between grades six to 12 makes following social distancing guidelines more managable with smaller class sizes.
Plexi shields are in the lunch room along with limits on group sizes at tables. Masks are required throughout the day.
The protocols continue on and on, though Reeder said she and her staff haven’t had to play the role of bad cop too often in the opening weeks of the school year.
“it’s just hard. They crave naturally that interaction,” Reeder said. “All the high fives and hugs and things that they do. So we’re trying really hard to bring little celebrations within the school day.
The first week they got little surprise each day like a freezie, a new little wristband, just things to celebrate them returning. Yeah, we know it’s different and we know it’s hard, but we’re so glad to see them. We want students to be safe and practice healthy protocols so we can stay in person as long as possible.”
A normal day on the job starts with Reeder finding solitude at her desk. She starts with prayer, which leads into a recital of the Bethlehem Academy mission statement that is always by her side on her desk: “Bethlehem Academy, a Catholic school in the Sinsinawa Dominican tradition, strives to empower its students and staff to achieve personal, spiritual and academic excellence. We challenge ourselves to love as Jesus Christ loved, to lead, to serve, to inspire and to seek the truth: Veritas.”
Then, it’s time to move.
“I go outside, greet the students, support them if they need anything. Then a typical day is just living out the mission,” Reeder said. “Going to the classrooms, going to the lunch room, talking to students and staff and really planning the different things we’re doing. We have teacher leader meetings, we have admin meetings, meetings with DMCS and the parish. There are just a lot of meetings that are part of the day. Then partnership with the Faribault district, as well. Superintendent (Todd) Sesker and I have had a lot of meetings and now with COVID, Zoom meetings.”
Collaborating with Faribault Public Schools and the greater Faribault community is high on Reeder’s priority list as BA principal/president.
“What can we do to support our community so this community becomes stronger together? All of the schools in this community really have to be strong and vibrant in order to help our community really thrive.”
For communities, and students in particular, to thrive, education is at the root of it all for Reeder. It’s what she reminds Jake and daughters Kaylee and Katrina, who have all completed or are near completion of a college degree.
“What I really tell kids, and this is something for my own children, is I want you to pursue an education. Even if you’re not sure what you want to do, you can always reinvent yourself.”