During Catholic Schools Week, all six of North Dakota’s Catholic high schools will come together in a contest rivaling any sports event.
The “Know Your Faith” competition on Jan. 29 will mark its 16th year at St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, where it all began, and it will also be the 11th consecutive year that the school has made a run for the state championship.
“When I first saw the ‘Know Your Faith’ competition, I was blown away,” said Father Dominic Bouck, St. Mary’s chaplain since 2018. “The state competition was one of the most intense competitions I had ever been to.”
Kylie Doppler, class of 2014, represented her class all four years. “Not only is it fun to support your classmates, but there are also fun activities throughout the event that truly make it extraordinary for every student.”
“It was definitely the highlight of Catholic Schools Week,” according to Kaitlyn Lengenfelder, class of 2011. “Our priests have the gift of getting students pumped up for the faith in a beautiful way.”
“I think one dad whose kid was a big football player put it best,” said Father Josh Waltz, St. Mary’s chaplain from 2007 to 2013. “He said, ‘My kid is more excited about ‘Know Your Faith’ than state football.’”
In the Beginning
Ironically, St. Mary’s school administrators were initially skeptical in 2005 when the school chaplain, Msgr. James Shea, and the chair of the religion department, Jerome Richter, first proposed the idea for a Jeopardy-like competition using questions about the Catholic faith. It would mean time away from classes and entail a lot of work. And would the students be excited to participate?
The students thought it was a great idea, cheering and shouting for their class representatives amid reverberating music, flashing lights and beach balls bouncing through the bleachers in between questions. Now, each Catholic high school in the state holds its own contest, followed by the state competition. This year, St. Mary’s will host the championship.
Msgr. Shea, who is now the president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, said of the initial idea: “What we really wanted was to establish the study of the faith as a substantive, worthwhile, exciting thing to do. Faith is about matters that are serious — life and death and the salvation of souls — and also about how to live and laugh and be together. Good books and good instruction were in place, but enthusiasm was something that had to be nurtured and prayed for.”
Richter, who is now vice president of public affairs at the University of Mary, thought the idea was “brilliant” from the start. Athletes, artists, musicians, singers and the speech team all had opportunities for recognition, he noted. “This would give the kids who love their faith a chance to be recognized.”
Msgr. Shea and Richter were ultimately given a green light and got to work compiling a 75-question multiple-choice exam for the entire student body with questions such as: “What is a crosier?” “Which one is not a mystery of the Rosary?” (followed by multiple-choice answers). Each class would be represented in the competition by their three top scorers.
Four overhead projectors were found for teams to use to reveal answers from three rounds of five questions, with one final question on which teams placed wagers from their earned points. They put together a music soundtrack and bought glow sticks and beach balls for the crowd to toss in the bleachers during team deliberations. Winners would receive an iPod, and the winning class would have a field trip to see a movie. There would even be a tug-of-war between classes and other halftime entertainment.
When “game day” arrived, the response was overwhelming. As Richter recalled, “It was outstanding! The winning class carried the student who got the last question right around the entire gym.”
When Father Joshua Waltz took over as chaplain at St. Mary’s Central in 2007, the competition began to expand. His brother, Father Justin Waltz, then chaplain of Bishop Ryan High School in Minot, North Dakota, brought it to his school in 2010. The winners from both schools then faced off in the first state tournament. It soon spread to other Catholic high schools in North Dakota: Shanley in Fargo, Sacred Heart in Grand Forks, and Trinity in Dickinson, so that, now, all six Catholic high schools in the state participate. All but one are in the Bismarck Diocese.
Representatives of the other schools were invited to St. Mary’s to watch in 2011. “We were most definitely impressed with the event and the positive, uplifting, raucous atmosphere surrounding it,” explained Mike Hagstrom, president of St. John Paul II Catholic Schools (which includes Shanley) and director of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Fargo. He was Shanley’s religion department chair and chaplain’s assistant at the time. “Know Your Faith” was introduced to Shanley the following year. “It’s been a hit ever since,” Hagstrom said. “I like the thrill of friendly competition and the fact that we gather as Catholic high schools and pray and celebrate our faith together.”
The finale of competition involves the bishop coming up with the final question on which wagers are placed, for instance: What are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit?
The prizes now are $100 for the winners of the school event, and the entire class gets to attend the state competition, which rotates to the various schools. State winners get their school name engraved on a traveling trophy, which the winning school keeps until the next competition.
At St. Mary’s under Father Waltz, a donor made it possible to buy strobe lights, large black lights that attach to the ceiling, a smoke machine and a sound system, creating a concert-like atmosphere for the competition. Mini concerts have actually been part of the activities, when a few talented priests have grabbed guitars and belted out songs. Since national Catholic speakers are invited during Catholic Schools Week, notable guests such as Sarah Swafford, Leah Darrow, Chris Stefanick and Jason Evert, all renowned Catholic speakers popular among young Catholics, have participated as judges.
Jason Evert remembers it well. “Although I participated in the ‘Know your Faith’ competition more than 10 years ago while speaking at St. Mary’s high school, I remember clearly the enthusiasm and energy of the students,” he said. “Their zeal for the faith, as well as their knowledge of it, was impressive.”
The themes are part of the fun. Father Waltz recalled the 2013 championship hosted at St. Mary’s when an “Ancient Rome” theme was chosen. Themes from other years include: “Welcome to the Jungle,” boxing, the 1980s and the Olympics.
Enthusiasm for the faith-filled competition keeps growing. The diocesan office in Bismarck closes during the state competition so that everyone can attend, and Real Presence Radio broadcasts it live on the radio and on its Facebook page.
Setting the Tone
Reed Ruggles, St. Mary’s principal, was a freshman religion teacher in 2005 during the inaugural year of competition. “My first impression was, ‘This is a powerful experience because it’s rooted in Christ,’” he said.
“The kids have the opportunity to laugh and learn and, most importantly, grow in their faith. People do this all the time for other types of competitions, so why not our faith?”
Ruggles explained that the student body rallied around it from the start because of the culture at St. Mary’s. “Part of that has been having a bishop willing to put chaplains into the high schools who understand their role as a shepherd and father of their flock,” he said. “The kids love our chaplains. Jesus was a teacher, and the chaplain teaches daily and builds relationships with the students.”
The mission that drives such enthusiasm includes hiring faith-filled instructors regardless of the subjects taught, according to Ruggles. Nurturing the school’s Catholic culture involves reaching out to parents, too. For example, keynote speakers for Catholic Schools Week also give evening talks for parents.
“Our entire faculty is now involved in ‘Know Your Faith,’” Ruggles said. “It comes to this beautiful culminating point where the school rallies around their faith and classmates rally around each other.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota. Many of her children have participated in the competition.
To get a glimpse of the “Know Your Faith” competition, watch here: