GREEN BAY — Whether home is the Northern Mariana Islands, the capital of the Lone Star State or northeast Wisconsin, Crystal and Todd Blahnik believe it’s God’s plan.
“I think when you approach your life with faith that God is in charge, when you put that philosophy forefront, we know that we are just where we are supposed to be,” said Crystal.
In June, the couple and their four children relocated from the Austin, Texas, area to serve in education for the diocese. Crystal is the new principal at St. Bernard School in Green Bay. Todd is the new director of Catholic educational services for St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System in Appleton.
Todd, the brother of Fr. Jason Blahnik, director of Catholic Campus Ministry at the UW-Oshkosh Newman Center, was born and raised in Door County, so the move marks a return home.
“My brother was the one who told me about the position,” he explained. “Initially, I said, ‘Jason, I’m not looking for something yet. I’m not feeling it.’ Then I looked at it again. I then said, ‘Jason, if you leave me alone, I will send in my resume.’ The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. I got a call and they were excited to talk to me. I thought to myself. ‘I’m just a Catholic school principal.’
“I’m very excited. It’s a great opportunity for me to really do the things I enjoy, which is working with the curriculum, infusing that faith component into programming, getting to mentor and work with the principals at the building level,” added Todd, a graduate of St. Norbert College in De Pere. “And selfishly, I don’t have to worry about the finance or development piece.”
Unlike Todd, who grew up in Fish Creek, Crystal called several different places home. She was born in Napa, Calif. Her father was a cryptologic technician in the Navy. She lived in Spain for six years and throughout the U.S., including California, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Crystal attended Trinity College in Vermont. She started as an education major, but switched to English, writing and communications in hopes of a working in public relations and marketing.
“It’s funny, I look back on my career and how God gives you all the tools to do what you need to do,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the understanding that I do now, of marketing and the importance of it in Catholic schools, if I didn’t have that experience. I interned in the development office and worked at a marketing firm in Burlington (Vt.). I knew from that experience that I didn’t want to do that.”
Following college, Todd served as a substitute teacher for a year in Door County, including filling in for his parents, who were both teachers. He sought a full-time position.
“I found a posting for a Catholic school in Saipan,” he explained. “I thought, ‘This will be interesting. I will do this for a year.’ I ended up spending nine years there.”
Crystal received a flyer about teaching opportunities in Saipan during her senior year of college.
“I just felt like this is something that is important, so this is where I’m going to go,” she said. “I just knew it in my heart.”
They met in 1996 as first-year teachers at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School and were married two years later. Saipan is a commonwealth of the U.S. and is the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The tropical island was originally occupied by the Spanish, so it has strong Catholic roots.
“It was a great experience,” said Todd. “It was almost missionary work because it didn’t pay anything.”
Todd earned a master’s degree in Catholic school leadership through a summer program from the University of San Francisco. He served as principal in Saipan the final three of his nine years at the school.
“We took it a year at a time,” he explained. “God will tell us when it’s time to leave. We learned how to be good teachers, how to work with other people and improve a school system.
The community was so diverse. We worked with very poor people to the other extreme. People came there from all over the world.”
Crystal grew in her faith on the island.
“It was at that time that I really started to connect with Christ and realize how Christ connects with the life that I’m going to live,” she said. “I started to form this opinion about the way I live my life; that I am going to do whatever God wants me to be.”
In 2005, a former colleague offered an opportunity for the Blahniks to return to the mainland of the U.S. Todd accepted a position as principal at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic School in Austin. The school had 200 students at the time, 75 percent Hispanic. Approximately four years after his arrival, the enrollment had grown to where the school was at 905 capacity. Progress was also made in technology, including laptop computers for each student.
Crystal filled in as a language arts teacher at St. Ignatius during Todd’s first year at the school. The following year, she took a position at a school in Georgetown. Crystal then worked in development. While in Texas, she completed her master’s degree work through the University of San Francisco. She served as principal at Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Granger prior to running the day-to-day operations at San Juan Diego High School in Austin. The school is modeled after Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, where students participate in a corporate work study program to offset the cost of their education.
A principal opening posted by GRACE (Green Bay Area Catholic Education) caught Crystal’s attention to accommodate Todd’s position with St. Francis Xavier.
“She got her contract before I did,” said Todd with a laugh.
“I couldn’t hold off any longer,” said Crystal. “I wanted to work at this school.”
“The Holy Spirit was at work,” said Todd. “Everything fell into place. It was not easy, but it came together.”
St. Bernard School has 368 students registered for K-8 and 76 students in its early childhood program. Crystal will be a St. Bernard parent in addition to principal. Daughter Lily, 9, and son A.J., 6, will attend the school. The oldest Blahnik child, Maria, 12, will attend St. Francis Xavier Middle School. Their youngest child, Clara, is 20 months old.
“On a personal level, my parents are in Door County, so it’s been fun seeing them and for the kids to spend time with them,” said Todd. “My brother will come to see the children, get them all riled up and then leave.”
Crystal and Todd will continue to support each other in their educational leadership positions. They regularly bounce ideas off one another.
“We collaborate very well,” said Todd.
“I was at a meeting where they were arranging for mentors for new principals,” said Crystal. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s really nice, but I don’t need a mentor because that’s Todd.’”