PORTLAND — For the first time in 30 years, leadership of Maine’s only Catholic girls’ high school will change during the coming academic year.

Sister Edward Mary Kelleher, who has been principal of Catherine McAuley High School since 1980, has passed the torch to Margaret Downing, a longtime lay Catholic schoolteacher and administrator.

Kelleher will serve as principal emerita through the coming school year and retire in June.

“I’ve really been very lucky,” Kelleher said of her lengthy stay at Catherine McAuley. “It’s wonderful to get up every day and do what you love.”

Downing retired three years ago after serving 10 years as principal of St. Joseph’s Central High School in Pittsfield, Mass., a co-educational school where she started teaching in 1970 and held various administrative positions. It’s also her alma mater.

Downing, 61, was tapped to return to high school leadership by the Sisters of Mercy, the founders and sponsors of Catherine McAuley. Downing was educated by the sisters at the former Trinity College in Burlington, Vt., which closed in 2000 and became part of the University of Vermont.

“I’m a product of Catholic education and I’m a product of the Sisters of Mercy,” Downing said in a telephone interview from her home in Pittsfield, Mass. She plans to move to Portland in the next few weeks.

Kelleher, 69, grew up in Bangor, where she also attended Catholic schools. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1963, while studying for a bachelor’s degree in education at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

“God was calling me in my life,” Kelleher said. “I think I was always inclined to become a nun, but it’s not something you tell your friends as you’re growing up.”

Born Sandra Kelleher, she took Edward Mary as her religious name in recognition of her twin brother, Edward Kelleher of Scarborough, a former state representative who retired two years ago from his longtime job as public information officer for the Maine Judicial Branch.

She went on to get a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision from Boston College.

Her career before Catherine McAuley included teaching and administrative positions at St. Mary’s School in Houlton, St. Joseph’s School in Lewiston and St. Patrick’s and Cathedral schools in Portland.

At Catherine McAuley, “she lives the mission,” said Martha Muldoon, a member of school’s board of trustees. “She leads by example. She has touched the lives of so many young women. We are delighted that she will be active in the transition.”

The 200-student school plans to hold a tribute to Kelleher next spring, Muldoon said.

Like Kelleher, Downing received her master’s degree in education administration from Boston College. Her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College was in history, with minors in education and English.

Though she spent her career at one school, she always sought out new challenges, and insisted on teaching when she became an administrator.

“Until I became principal, I would only take a new position as long as I could continue to teach at least one class,” Downing said.

As principal at St. Joseph’s, Downing continued its 100 percent college acceptance rate and significantly increased college financial aid and scholarships to graduating seniors. She also introduced online courses and Advanced Placement classes for college credit at the school.

Downing also was a member and chairperson of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges visiting teams, responsible for periodically evaluating schools and making recommendations on accreditation.

Downing impressed Muldoon and other trustees during the interview process, especially when she said that she enjoyed everything about educating young women, even their angst and their drama.

“If you can love a teenager in their angst and their drama, that’s impressive,” Muldoon said.

Downing said she accepted the challenge of moving to a new state to lead a new school because she believes life should be an adventure.

“It’s a leap of faith,” Downing said. “Part of the reason I retired was to see what else was out there.” Since her retirement, she has worked as a guidance counselor at a local high school and a therapist at a local hospital.

Downing acknowledged that heading an all-girls’ high school will be new to her, but she’s familiar with the benefits of single-sex education. Trinity College was an all-women’s school.

“I’m a great believer in single-sex education,” Downing said. “In a co-ed situation, boys often dominate in the classroom or in leadership roles outside the classroom. For many girls (in a single-sex school), it’s the first time they step into leadership roles. It’s inevitable that they develop leadership skills that will serve them throughout life.”

Looking ahead, Kelleher and Downing agree that it will continue to be a challenge to meet the Catherine McAuley’s mission in a tough economy, as it is for all schools.

Downing said she’s prepared to continue Catherine McAuley’s tradition of academic and athletic excellence, including efforts to expand its computer laptop program by offering online courses in tandem with high schools across the country.

“I’m eager to answer the question, ‘What should education look like in the 21st century?’ ” Downing said. 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]