‘Holiness Breeds Holiness When Hearts Are Open’: Vocations Sprout at Catholic High School in North Dakota
A good Catholic education has the power to ignite vocations and set the world on fire.
A good Catholic education has the power to ignite vocations and set the world on fire. This is clear in the legacy of the Class of 2014 at St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, where the seeds of four religious vocations blossomed.
In addition, their junior-year religion teacher became a priest, and many from the 94 souls in the class continue to live out their faith in the world and have committed to holy marriages.
Father Josh Waltz, the school chaplain, opened his back-to-school open house with Mass in September 2010. “You have to choose sides,” he told the freshman students. “You can’t be middle of the road if you want to be an authentic Catholic.”
They took the message to heart.
Father Jared Johnson, pastor at St. Mary’s, was the school chaplain for five years, beginning with the class of 2014. “It really was a special group of students,” he recalled. “And a lot of that was a testament to the work Father Waltz did their first three years and the other teachers. There were also many good families. It was certainly a team effort.”
Father Johnson pointed out a distinct feature of the Catholic schools in the Bismarck Diocese: Bishop David Kagan has continued what Bishop Paul Zipfel started — placing two to three priests in the Catholic schools working as administrators and teachers. “That allows students not to just see the priest as the one saying Mass but to have day-to-day interactions of getting to know them,” he told the Register.
Seminarian Ryan Martire, a member of the class, now in formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and teaching seniors at St. Dominic’s High School in O’Fallon, Missouri, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in May.
“I am so grateful for attending St. Mary’s High School,” he told the Register. “Yet it is the people in the school that are faithful to Christ in their vocations that made the difference. Many can go to Catholic high schools without having the privilege of these examples and relationships.”
Being led by their chaplain in a school-wide total consecration to Mary, according to him, had a strong impact on their class. “Father Waltz purchased Consecration to Mary books for our school during our time there,” he said. “I think a communal gift of self to Mary really brought our class together in Christ.”
All four students with religious vocations had thoughts of marriage and careers before hearing a deeper, stronger call. They expressed that their chaplains, in addition to their religion teachers, were key influences all four years. The students’ faith was nurtured as part of St. Mary’s education, with faith formation including retreats, pilgrimages, the wildly popular “Know Your Faith” competition, speakers, a Lenten daily Mass challenge and much more.
“It was a great class,” according to Father Gregory Crane, a lay religion teacher during their junior year. “They were overall very engaged for that reason; it was such a joy to teach them.”
He credited the robust examples of priests in the Bismarck Diocese with giving him the courage to answer his own call to the priesthood. He entered seminary in 2013, was ordained in 2019, and is now chaplain and head of the religion department at Bishop Ryan Catholic School in Minot.
“What is really cool about that class,” he told the Register, “is that many of them stayed together. After two or three years in seminary, I was sitting in the adoration chapel at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and saw a group of men from that class, now in college, come in to pray a novena they were doing together.”
“When Grant and Ryan and later Isaiah entered the seminary,” Father Crane said, “it took them a while to stop calling me Mr. Crane. It would make all the other seminarians laugh.”
A Contemplative Sister
Sister Mary, Mother of the Church, formerly known as Kayla Miller, spoke with the Register after taking her fourth and final vow on Sept. 13. She was on a home visit before leaving for Germany on Oct. 3 as a contemplative nun with the Institute Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a community with more than 2,000 priests and nuns in more than 40 countries.
Sister Mary said that attending St. Mary’s helped dispose her soul to being open to a vocation. She credited Father Waltz’s “Lenten Challenge” to the entire school to attend daily Mass, with the promise of taking those students to dinner at the nicest restaurant during Easter, with getting her to go to daily Mass.
“That closeness with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” she told the Register, “which is of infinite merit and infinite value every single day, is a true conduit for grace.”
Senior year, she was awarded a scholarship to study forensic science, but the annual senior class trip changed those plans.
“I was on our St. Mary’s trip to Fort Yates at St. Bernard’s Mission School for a day of volunteering,” she explained. “After Mass, Mr. Ruggles stood up and said, ‘You have some very important decisions to make, but how many of you have asked God what he wants you to do?’
“I had not really asked him, even though I had inklings,” she said. “So I asked. The answer was clear: ‘I want you to be a sister.’ On the bus home, I called Father Waltz. I just knew. That joy has carried me through ever since.”
Isaiah Fischer entered the seminary in the fall of 2017. He has further discerned a call to the Community of Jesus Crucified in Louisiana, where he entered formation last summer. It is a community dedicated to serving the suffering and to revealing the victory of the cross.
While discerning after graduation, he credited a total consecration to Mary that he did with fellow classmate and seminarian Ryan Martire with having a huge impact on his life, as well as attending daily Mass. One morning, tired of the struggle to know what God wanted of him, Fischer offered up his Mass and told God, “I just want to know what you want. I don’t care what it is. I just want to know what you want.”
After Mass, in his pew, Fischer said that he heard God’s clear answer.
“He literally spoke to me: ‘Will you bring me to the world in the Eucharist?’ Who am I to deny God? Our vocations are from the goodness of our Father who invites us to become servants in Jesus the Servant. When I witness my fellow classmates always striving to become better servants, it propels me to be a better servant, too, because I witnessed the fruit of their sacrifices and service: holiness.”
Father Grant Dvorak
Father Grant Dvorak was ordained a priest on June 13. He is the parochial vicar of Queen of Peace Catholic Church and chaplain of Trinity Junior and Senior High School in Dickinson, North Dakota.
“There is no doubt that making the decision with my parents to switch from public school to St. Mary’s Central High School made a difference in my faith and vocational path,” he told the Register. “To be called to something more than simply the next experience in my earthly life, however beautiful and good, was a message that was taught and preached throughout my time at St. Mary’s and is something for which I am extremely grateful.”
“Kayla Miller, now Sister Mary, Mother of the Church, and Ryan Martire spearheaded the movement to enter our small chapel for adoration at lunch time,” he continued. “At the time, I remember being curious and confused about how and why such great athletes would skip lunch period to go into the chapel. By the grace of God, I decided to follow, along with a few other classmates. With that early experience of showing up to be with Jesus in the Eucharist, it seems fairly obvious now that the fruit of religious vocations, diocesan priests and a whole boatload of holy marriages would naturally follow from our class of 2014.”
Father Waltz, who is now pastor of St. Joseph Church in Mandan, North Dakota, said that none of this surprises him. “You look through history and see that saints come in groups,” he said. “Holiness breeds holiness when hearts are open. It seemed like when one caught fire, they all started catching fire. Without St. Mary’s, they would not have had this encounter. When God got into their lives, it was an explosion. It was like iron sharpening iron.”
“I love those guys,” Father Waltz said. “It was a great class. They are great people. And it’s a great end of the story. Or maybe, I should say, it’s a great beginning.”
The four classmates with various vocations have pointed to the faithful witnesses to the faith of their classmates. “I wish we could do an article on the countless marriages in our class that are striving to live lives for Christ and his Church,” Martire said. “This is just as inspiring of a witness.”
Ben Weisbeck of the Class of 2014 shared that before his wedding to Teah in 2021, his guy friends prayed the Rosary together prior to the ceremony — something the men have done together now at five classmates’ weddings. Prior to Teresa (Armstrong) McKeown’s wedding ceremony with Cole in 2017, confession and Eucharistic adoration were made available for friends and family. These things are common for that class.
“When you have friends who are living an authentic Christian life,” Martire said, “seeking to listen to the voice of the Lord and follow his will for their life, things like this should and do happen. We needed each other in taking these steps to inspire one another to answer the call with courage. We cannot have done it alone.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota, where one of her daughters, Teresa, was a member of St. Mary’s Class of 2014.
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