This week is Catholic schools week, and although our children are not yet school aged, I wanted to talk a little bit about how and why we have chosen Catholic schooling for our children’s education.
It wasn’t an obvious decision for either of us, Atticus and I having both attended public schools for K-12. I did not attend a Catholic school until college, and Atticus did not until law school. We may have entered late into the game, but when we did, we witnessed excellence. The Catholic universities we attended (Mount Saint Mary’s, Loyola Chicago and Notre Dame, respectively) all displayed a combination of academic rigor and Catholic identity (some moreso than others) that inculcated a love for learning and our Catholic faith. We both experienced for the first time the joy of being able to attend Mass with fellow students and teachers, and of speaking freely of our faith in the context of our learning, and performing the works of mercy as a form of experiential learning. Atticus even entered the Church while a student at Notre Dame (along with 30 other students that year).
I even felt so strongly about Catholic education that I moved to Chicago, sight unseen, in order to teach in an under-resourced Catholic school on the south side. This was an eye-opening experience. My first time seeing that Catholic schools can suffer problems both profound and endlessly frustrating in scope. In many urban areas, Catholic schools have become the safer, higher performing alternative to failing public schools. One result of this is that in many urban Catholic schools, a large percentage of students are non-Catholics. In the school where I worked, 75% or more of students were non-Catholic. As you can imagine, this presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for teachers and administrators, trying to be welcoming of students from other backgrounds, but also upholding a Catholic identity. Another result of this is that the parish and school relationship can be strained. In the parish school where I worked, many members of the parish resented the school receiving funding from the parish because not only were so few families Catholic, but the families that were, did not attend Mass there. This is a real problem. If the people of the parish feel little to no connection with the school and it’s families, they will struggle with seeing resources go to the school.
Ultimately, classroom teaching was not a good fit for me and I left that program and position after less than a year. I learned from that experience that not all Catholic schools are the same. They are not all populated with wealthy children who are skating through life. They are not all filled with faithful families or lukewarm Catholics, both assertions I have heard and read recently. I learned that when Catholic schools are good, they are great. But they are not perfect.
From the moment we saw two heartbeats on that ultrasound and knew twins were in our future, we started thinking about school. Both Atticus and I felt strongly that we wanted Catholic schooling for our children if possible, and we wanted to make it possible. In our current home, there are three Catholic elementary schools within 2 miles of our house. The joys of city living. We attended Mass a couple of times at each parish, knowing that we would not send our kids to a school where we were not part of the parish community. One parish broke basically the only rule I have in order to attend your church: Jesus needs to be in the sanctuary. If the tabernacle isn’t in the sanctuary, I’m not going to your church. Sorry, but I’m not sorry. I can handle Marty Haugen, female altar servers don’t bother me, and if you offer, I’ll shake your hand happily during the sign of peace. Jesus needs to be where he should be. None of the parishes in our neighborhood felt like a good fit, and the parish we had attended the past few years did not have a school.
We started thinking outside the box, and that’s when we found our school and parish. We started thinking of parishes where we had attended Mass and enjoyed it, and wrote them down. Of those, we started looking to see which had schools and what we could find out about them. And we made shocking discovery.
Our parish school has no tuition. Yes, you read that right. Let me explain.
When I first learned that the school had no tuition, I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize that was a possibility. We have friends who attend the parish who informed us. Of course, we wanted to learn more, and decided to attend Mass there on a Sunday morning to get a feel for the place. Tabernacle, front and center. We are golden. No, not the most beautiful church I have been in, but reverent. Perpetual adoration chapel, check. Largest food pantry and free medical clinic in the county, check. 28 vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the past 15 years, check. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little Flowers, CYO sports, check. Bible studies with babysitting, Moms group, Men’s group, check. Nursery during Mass for twin toddlers who crawl in opposite directions, check.
The icing on top of the cake is the school. The school is run by Dominican sisters out of Nashville. I happened to meet the school principal one Sunday when I returned to the nursery to pick my baby up and there she was, holding him. Principal who holds babies for fun, check.
The school is truly a parish school. It is only open to children of the parish. All school families are expected to attend Mass at the parish on a regular basis, and must be involved in the parish community, in addition to an expectation of financial support of the parish.
What joy for my children to be able to worship God with their principal, teachers, and classmates. To begin and end each day with prayer. To receive their first sacraments with the same children they play with at recess and read with in the classroom. To proudly pray before sports practices and games. To be educated in the virtues, works of mercy, and academic tools for success in a seamless manner infused with our faith.
What a tremendous gift from our parish to its families, to take on the cost of educating their children. To give our boys and girls the example of holy men and women giving their lives in service to God by teaching them and molding them. I learned recently that in the early part of the 20th century, nearly all parish schools operated this way. I wonder why it has fallen out of practice, as I have been Catholic for 30 years and I have not heard of another school which operates under this model.
Though we still have more than a year until Maggie starts Kindergarten, we chose Catholic schooling long ago. Our desire for Catholic education lead us to this parish community we love, and we are eager to begin the journey of being a Catholic schooling family.