This past May, a parishioner dropped off a small box of apricots at the St. John Vianney parish rectory in Goodyear, Ariz.
The pastor, Holy Cross Father Thomas Eckert, remembered his mother’s crust recipe from his days growing up on an Indiana farm. He baked a few apricot pies and brought them with him to the 5pm Mass the following Saturday.
“It’s funny, because I wasn’t even sure, when I was carrying the pies over to the church, what I was going to do with them,” Father Eckert told the Register. He saw a small opportunity to raise awareness and maybe a few dollars from selling the pies for the parish school.
“I didn’t intend [what happened] — I mean, there was no plan for it to be a fundraiser,” said Father Eckert, who did not expect the results of divine Providence’s intervention.
What happened next has become known locally as the “Parable of the Pies.”
Father Eckert, 41, has since baked more than 40 pies, which have generated $7,000 in donations for St. John Vianney Catholic School. The school has seen enrollment increase by more than 80 students since last spring.
“My office started getting emails from people, and they were asking, ‘If we drop off a check, can Father bake me a pie?’” Father Eckert said. “I said, ‘Hey, if you would like to assist the school, I would like to thank you with a pie. I call it a thank-you pie.”
Father Eckert’s culinary skills and enthusiasm for Catholic education — he and his 13 siblings attended Catholic schools growing up — has helped raise enrollment at the school, as well as awareness for parish families that, with hard work and diligence, they can afford a Catholic education for their children.
“I try to explain to families that we are not asking them to do this alone,” Father Eckert said. “If we can get the families in the door so we can sit with them and form that relationship, that’s an unparalleled way to building that bond of trust, not only for their children’s education, but also that bond of trust that what Father says from the pulpit is being backed up by what the process is showing us.”
Father Eckert became pastor of St. John Vianney Church on July 1, 2011, after spending eight years at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught Spanish, earned his master’s degree in Spanish literature and served as director of Latino ministry.
His background helps him minister to a parish of 3,200 registered families that is 70% Hispanic. Father Eckert, who also served as a deacon in 2002 at St. John Vianney Church, recently spoke with the Register for a wide-ranging telephone interview, where he spoke about his love for Catholic education and how his mother’s pie-crust recipe is helping him revitalize his parish school.
How much has enrollment increased this year at St. John Vianney Catholic School?
We started at 202 students when the two initial apricot pies were introduced at Mass. The enrollment grew, and during the summer, it peaked at 295. We started the school year at 280, so it went down a little bit. People in education circles said that’s not unusual.
How big of a role do you think the pies had in this success?
It’s developed into something bigger through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s fun, because who doesn’t like pie? It’s really developed community on many levels. It really strengthened the community between our parish and our school, because people now have an investment in our school. They have a much better knowledge of our school over the course of what we’ve been communicating over the course of the past months.
It’s developed a cohesive parish and school community. It’s given everyone in the parish, even if they don’t have a kid in the school or whether they are a retiree or snowbird, the opportunity to participate. It’s really made a difference in the child’s life and the life of the Church.
Why do you think enrollment dipped a bit since the summer?
One of the things for us is that, even though, for many people, we were able to message and build that confidence that Catholic education is possible financially, there were still some families who thought it sounded too good to be true. They were afraid.
So, since the public schools began two weeks before Catholic schools in Phoenix, there were some families — I think out of fear — who decided to re-enroll their kids in public schools, and they were comfortable with that.
Why do you think those families feared they would not be able to afford Catholic education?
They didn’t want to start something they couldn’t finish. There were new families to our school, and there was still that fear that, “Gosh, I don’t want to happen to my kids’ education what kind of happened during the mortgage crisis.” There’s still that underlying financial fear. You know, we never said anything about a balloon payment in January.
Instead of coming to us and asking us those questions about “What happens if our finances change?” — instead of doing those things — they made the decision, without talking to us, to go back into the public schools.
What do you tell families to make them understand they can afford a Catholic education for their children?
What we’ve told every family is this: If everybody — the families, the parish and also the outside student-tuition organizations — does everything that they can, then Catholic education will work.
I let the families know that if they do everything we ask them to do, then I will find a way to make their child’s education possible. If they fill out all the applications for external resources, if they talk to us, if there is still additional need, we will help them — because not only from a pastoral viewpoint, but from the business side as well, having students leave during the year isn’t good for anybody.
Are there enough resources to go around to help all families that want to send their children to Catholic schools?
I would say the answer is Yes. It takes a lot of work to identify them. It takes a lot of work to make sure the families are doing everything they can to apply for them, because, as we know in our business day, our family day, work day, time just flies.
All of a sudden, you look at your calendar, and you realize, “Oh my gosh, I was supposed to do that.”
How does the parish help families identify financial-aid resources?
With deadlines, for those families that are planning to do the paperwork, the important thing is to tell them not to let [the paperwork] sit on their desk. That’s why we formed our advisory committee for financial aid. The parents make appointments with our volunteers. We have someone working with them one-on-one.
We know it doesn’t work to say, “You should do this or do this.” That just doesn’t work. What does work is: “Let us help you to fill those applications out. If you bring these materials, we’ll have everything we need to finish those applications.” It’s hand-on. It’s very time-consuming, but when you think of the investment in one hour or two, working with a family who maybe doesn’t know how to use a computer or speak English, there are a lot of obstacles. But I think we’ve done a good job in identifying those obstacles and getting the [work] completed.
What is the cross-section of the families in your parish who send their children to the school?
There are families with the right personality, education and confidence to seek out all the financial-aid options. There are also families who are new to the United States. The obstacles might be language, no experience with the Internet or no knowledge of computers. For them, to be sitting with us [to complete the process in a major step]. I pop in, reintroduce myself and thank them for trusting us. You see the smile on their faces, the realization that this is real. It’s a great sense of community and family.
Why do you place such a high value on Catholic education?
The children we educate now in Catholic school — those are the people we are going to want to be the leaders in the future. We are going to want the kids who have had that day-to-day encounter with Christ, that day-to-day moral compass development. We want the kids who, day to day, have been taught respect, compassion, courtesy and love throughout their day.
You are a product of Catholic schooling. How did it impact you?
I went to a public junior-high school because the local Catholic high school closed. In almost every class, at some point, the teachers would ask me what [grade] school I went to, and when I told them, they would say, “Oh, that’s why.” I think it’s because I was respectful and courteous. I did my homework, and the way I interacted with the teachers and my fellow students, there was something different in what the teachers saw, and I know that was because I went to Catholic school.
How do you measure success in the students who attend St. John Vianney Catholic School?
If we can continue to grow our school, to form our students in Catholic education, whether they’re in college or beyond, I want people who see the children who come through our school to say, “Wow, what makes you different?” And it was because they were formed in a much different way. The reason why I’m so enthusiastic about Catholic education is that it has made a huge impact in my own life journey. I want everyone who seeks a Catholic education to do that because it makes a difference.
What do you tell parents who tell you, after all of your reassurances, that they can’t afford a Catholic education?
Very respectfully, I say, “You know, imagine my parents who had 14 children — what they must have thought as they sent their children to a Catholic school.” I respectfully share this with our parents who have concerns. I kind of chuckle and say, “My parents did it with 14 kids,” and they’re like, “Oh my gosh,” and it helps put things into perspective.
Are the families believing the message?
They're gaining confidence as a family and parish community. I think, next year, we are setting up very well to see a comparable growth, because the families have seen great success, and that word is already spreading.
Do you see Catholic education as a whole overcoming the well-known challenges to its long-term viability?
I think one of the best things happening in Catholic education is: We are being challenged to truly provide a great education. If we can combine urging parents to consider Catholic education with the knowledge that it is possible financially to pay for Catholic education — and knowing the best education you can get is being at our Catholic schools — that’s the point that we have to reach. Those things, together, that’s how Catholic schools are going to flourish again, and we can do it.
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.