Shrine’s newest principal, Thomas Oppat, feels he is right where God wants him

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published October 14, 2015

 Shrine Catholic High School and Academy Assistant Principal James Mio, left, celebrates spirit week with Principal Thomas Oppat. The duo represents new leadership at the Catholic school.

Shrine Catholic High School and Academy Assistant Principal James Mio, left, celebrates spirit week with Principal Thomas Oppat. The duo represents new leadership at the Catholic school.

Photo by Donna Agusti

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ROYAL OAK — For Thomas Oppat, the life events leading to his appointment as Shrine Catholic High School and Academy principal were filled with sequential divinity.

“It just all fell into place for me,” he said. “When I sit back now, I think, ‘God, you knew what was happening.’”

Walking the hallways of the seventh- and eighth-grade academy and ninth- to 12th-grade high school on 13 Mile Road, Oppat feels at home while he continues to learn about and appreciate the institution’s history and people.

Oppat shadowed former Principal Bernadette Sugrue before her retirement.

“Her advice to me was, ‘Treasure the faculty and the staff, and adore the students,’” he said. “That’s pretty powerful.”

Oppat has been getting to know the Shrine community.

“Everyone has been very welcoming,” he said. “The more and more I learn about the community, the more excited I am to be here.”

In the spirit

Oppat, 47, joined in the fun during the students’ spirit week, which had patriotism as its theme.

The new principal wore shorts, with a white shirt and blue and red tie to match the color scheme.

“It shows his unique flair,” said Assistant Principal James Mio.

Mio took over as assistant principal last year after teaching at the school for 14 years. He is a Shrine High School graduate.

“The two of us are two peas in a pod,” Oppat said.

With student council members leading the way, it was a week without the usual uniforms and a way to show school pride.

“One of the days that we do every year is ‘decades day,’ so you can dress up like any of the decades,” said senior Joe Romano. “There’s a lot of ’50s and greasers and pink ladies.”

The new principal said he considers the kids his extended family, not having any children of his own while focusing on his faith and career.

“I couldn’t have done all that I have over the past years if I had my own family,” he said.

Oppat said his mother reminds him that he is blessed by God to have such a wonderful community of children to call his own.

“That’s been my philosophy,” he said. “The students are my family and the community is, and that’s been my philosophy wherever I have went.”

Blessed past

Oppat began his 26-year education career in Hazel Park Schools as a math and science teacher until he found a job at St. Clement in Cente Line as director of religious education for the parish and school. The job at St. Clement matched his devotion to the Catholic Church and his passion for teaching.

He then moved to De La Salle Collegiate as a theology teacher and campus minister before spending two years at Our Lady of the Lakes High School in Waterford as principal. Oppat then made the move to Orchard Lake Schools St. Mary’s Preparatory, where he taught math and theology and was a campus minister and assistant administrator for eight years.

His educational background includes attending the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Sacred Heart Major Seminary and Madonna University. He has undergraduate degrees in math and psychology, master’s degrees in mathematics and administration, and a degree in theology.

Oppat had to leave his position as principal at Our Lady of the Lakes because he didn’t have his administration certificate, which brought him to Madonna University to obtain his master’s degree in administration.

Upon completion, the Shrine head position opened.

“My dream was always to be a principal again,” Oppat said. “I can’t tell you how it fell into place. God has a lot to do with it.”

After months of interviews, tours, and submitting plans and documents, Oppat was offered the job.

“I said, ‘God, it’s in your hands. Where you want me, you’ll lead me,” he said. “I had a great job at St. Mary’s. I loved doing what I was doing at St. Mary’s. There was no other reason for me to leave other than to advance.”

Meaningful connections

“I’ve known Shrine since I was a child,” Oppat said. “Growing up in Warren, and my grandparents lived in Dearborn, and they came out to Shrine all the time, and we would come out to meet them once a month.

“So, it has always been a part of me growing up, so that’s been an important part,” he said. 

The position became more meaningful after The National Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church was named a minor basilica, which brought more attention to the parish and the elementary, academy and high school.

Oppat’s goals for Shrine Catholic High School and Academy moving forward include retaining and attracting families and building a stronger connection between the school and the Royal Oak community.

“We have so much to offer here, and I don’t think many people really understand and see, until you come into the community, what we have to offer,” he said.

Oppat said his goal is to make Royal Oak and Shrine one and the same. He plans on accomplishing this by embracing and giving back to the community, whether it be providing meals, adopting families during the holidays, supporting the Police and Fire departments, and continuing Shrine’s partnership with Beaumont Health System.

Oppat said Shrine students donate service hours at a rate he’s never seen before. At the last awards banquet, the principal said students won awards for 100, 150, and more than 200 hours of community service in one year.

He said in addition to that, the students in last year’s graduating class received $8.9 million in scholarships.

“One hundred percent of our kids were accepted to college last year,” he said. “And that’s an awesome thing I love to brag about.”

So what does Oppat do when he isn’t at or spreading the word about Shrine?

Oppat’s primary hobby is spending time with his family. He is the middle of seven siblings and was raised and still lives in Warren.

He also enjoys reading, playing tennis and cooking. And he jokes that he is a better cook than his baby brother, Andiamo Executive Chef Jim Oppat.

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