A longtime teacher at St. Francis Borgia Grade School has been named the new principal.

Michelle Etter, who has been working at the Catholic school for the past 17 years, will replace Keith Branson.

Etter said she was “in shock” when Branson personally called each teacher at the school to tell them he had decided to take a break from administration and go back to teaching in another school.

“We have been working together for the last 17 years. We had a great working relationship,” Etter said of Branson. “When he said he was stepping down, I felt like I was losing my best friend.”

Father Brian Hecktor, the new pastor at St. Francis Borgia Parish, asked Etter to come in for an interview to see if she would be a good fit for principal.

Because it’s so close to the beginning of school, the Archdiocesan Education Office thought the best plan of action would be to let Father Hecktor choose the principal. Organizing a search committee could have taken weeks and wouldn’t have been feasible.

The education office gave Father Hecktor a list of candidates to consider, Etter said, and had recommended her.

In this past weekend’s parish bulletin, Father Hecktor said Etter is “well-qualified and I am confident she will work well with the parents and the parish to continue to provide a quality Catholic education for our students.”

Father Hecktor told The Missourian that in working with her over the past year, Etter has shown “wonderful leadership abilities and organizational skills”

He said she “came highly recommended by many. I’m certainly very happy to be able to work with her.”

Etter said she’s “very honored and flattered” to have been selected.

“This is an amazing school,” she said. “We’re blessed with a wonderful supportive parish. We’ve got supportive families and amazing, experienced teachers who care so much about the students.”

Etter said she’s excited to work with the teachers on a different level and to move the school into the 21st century by helping implement the common core state standards, which help streamline education.

The process, she said, will take more than one year, but it will help make sure there aren’t any gaps in education.

Etter also will continue implementing the virtue-based restorative discipline plan that began last year.

Being responsible for the school’s curriculum will be a big change, she said, but one she’s looking forward to.

Etter also hopes to expand technology at the school, which already is a wireless campus with smartboard technology.

Becoming a principal has always been a goal, she said. But she wasn’t sure when it would happen.

“I knew the Holy Spirit would guide me,” she said.

Etter started her career with St. Francis Borgia Grade School as a third-grade teacher. She taught for four years before establishing the preschool program in 1999.

She then taught preschool for five years and middle school for one year.

For the past seven years, she has been the coordinator of religious education (CRE), responsible for the PSR program, Sunday children’s liturgy of the word and religion curriculum for the daytime school.

Etter also assisted the school with Mass planning, sacraments, Vacation Bible School and other religious education.

In her new role, Etter said she plans to be hands on with teachers and students.

A Washington native, Etter attended Our Lady of Lourdes for grade school and St. Francis Borgia Regional High School. She earned her associate’s degree from East Central College, Union, and transferred to Southeast Missouri State University to earn her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

She earned her master’s degree in elementary administration from Lindenwood University in 2002.

Etter and her husband, Michael, have three children: Ethan, 9, and Lukas, 6, who both attend St. Francis Borgia Grade School, and Martha, 2. The family lives in Marthasville and are parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul.

Etter said Catholic education is important to her.

“It gives me an opportunity to pass on my faith to the next generation,” she said. “I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else and not being able to share my faith freely.”

Etter thanked Branson for his 19 years with St. Francis Borgia and 15 years as principal.

“He was a wonderful mentor,” she said. “Without him, this school wouldn’t be what it is today. I’ve got pretty big shoes to fill.”