Dominican Sisters Choose Nation’s Poorest Diocese to Enliven Struggling Catholic School
“I felt [St. Katharine Drexel’s] approval, as if she were saying, ‘Yes, help my little ones,’” said Sister Thomas Aquinas, incoming president of Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Gallup, New Mexico.
GALLUP, N.M. — D.J. Biava believes in the Resurrection, not only in Christ’s life, but in the life of the school that helped form his strong Catholic faith, currently on the cusp of — as he sees it — a major rebirth.
“I’ve stuck through it through all these hard times. And now, with these nuns coming in, we feel like it’s an answer to years and years of prayer,” the father of four and graduate of Sacred Heart Cathedral School told the Register. “I’d even call it a miracle.”
Biava and his two sisters graduated high school there when enrollment numbered several hundred, as did his father and his father’s mother. “The school’s been here over 100 years,” he said, beginning in 1912, the year New Mexico became a state. Currently, enrollment is less than 50, with instruction only through eighth grade.
Despite the school limping along “on life support” for a while now, according to one administrator — partly due to a prominent public charter classical school having drawn many former families — Biava believes God is doing something big in Gallup.
His hope stems largely from a recent announcement that a trio of Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist will arrive there in the fall.
“They had many people writing them, requesting their presence,” Biava said. “We’re the poorest diocese in the United States, and the fact that they’re willing to come to Gallup — we don’t usually get such obvious signs from God.”
‘Nazareth of New Mexico’
John Freeh, interim principal, helped encourage the Dominicans, who come from a relatively young order based in Michigan, to come to Gallup. The diocese, which spans 55,000 square miles, touts a rich history of religious presence, including such orders as the Clear Creek Benedictines, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Missionaries of Charity, who, Freeh said, came “by the express directive of Mother Teresa herself.”
“In the 1890s, Mother [St. Katharine] Drexel, with her fortune, basically started funding schools and bringing religious here to the Southwest,” Freeh said, noting that in the last 20 years, the vocational downturn has led to a staffing shortage, like elsewhere.
This summer, the last of the Franciscan friars, brought by Mother Drexel, are leaving the diocese, he said. “So it’s a new birth, as it were, for teaching religious in the diocese.”
The school comprises around 20% Caucasian students, with the majority Native American and Hispanic. Freeh added that it’s one of the few schools offering daily Mass — in Latin on Fridays, with Mass in English Monday through Thursday.
“I liken it to the Nazareth of New Mexico,” he remarked, asking, “What good can come from Gallup?” In his estimation: much.
St. Katharine Drexel’s Spirit
Sister Thomas Aquinas, who will become the school’s principal this fall, said when she visited the area recently from Houston, the date providentially fell on the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, March 3. “I could just feel her when we were there, including in the heart of the people and the families.”
She continued, “Gallup is a very unique location for our sisters to be, with a lot of unique needs,” noting that, with St. Katharine Drexel’s focus on both the Eucharist and Catholic education, “I felt her approval, as if she were saying, ‘Yes, help my little ones.’”
Along with the work that already has been done there, she said, “We’re hoping to bring our unique mission, our love for academic rigor, and our love for the truth as Dominicans, but also in the context of helping the students grow in their love of Christ and their love of Mary.”
With five sisters in her order currently serving as principals, Sister Thomas Aquinas contends that she will have “a very strong network of support” for the challenging work ahead.
A goal will be to incorporate a strong classical liberal arts curriculum, matching what the popular public classical schools are offering — and then some.
Biava said that during a visit, Sister Thomas shared that “the heart of a classical curriculum is God,” noting, “You can’t say that at a public charter school. You can brush around it — beauty, truth and goodness — but in the end that’s all God, and [the other schools] are missing the most fundamental element: God himself.”
“I think the nuns will bring their joy but also their intellect,” Biava said. “They know how to run schools and to make money work for them.”
A Glimpse of Heaven
Gallup Bishop James Wall met two of the order’s foundresses in Phoenix in 2005 and has been in touch with them ever since, making several requests for them to come to Gallup. “So when Mother Amata Veritas shared the good news that they had decided to send three sisters to our school, I knew it would really help to elevate the school and community,” he told the Register.
Bishop Wall said he anticipates a further deepening of Catholic identity. “We can talk about Catholic identity until we’re blue in the face, but until we see it truly lived, that can be really difficult,” he said. “The sisters will be that living example of those who prefer nothing above Christ and have forsaken the things of the world.”
As secularization pervades, more people are doing what they want and not what God wants, he added. “The Dominicans are one of the great intellectual religious communities of the Church, and they bring that gift to not only the school but the entire community.”
Religious life properly lived, he said, “gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like.” Additionally, theirs is not only a very Marian community, but one focused on the Eucharist. “I don’t think it should be lost on us that we received this good news in the first year of the Eucharistic Revival.”
Susan St. Thomas, who will be starting her eighth year teaching kindergarten at Sacred Heart, said the staff is excited for the sisters’ presence, too. “I think it’ll be a real refresher, a real thread that will unify the school,” she said, strengthen catechesis, and help the students see that the religious “are real people.”
‘Encounter With Christ’
Mother Amata Veritas, who visited the school during the discernment process, said she saw a great opportunity for the diocese, parish and her order to partner together to advance Catholic education. “Kids are so hungry to learn the faith and practice the faith,” she said. “You could see a great openness to all this [in Gallup].”
The Dominican charism, she said, is ordered around preaching the truth and taking that truth into the world. “We also understand that truth is not just a set of things to know, but an encounter with Christ,” she said. “Every part of Catholic education — even in just learning the wonders of science together and the truth through literature — becomes infused with Jesus Christ.”
The presence of religious habits will also be significant, providing “a reminder that this person is consecrated to God, has given their life to God through the vows,” Mother Amata said. “I think even for adults, it will give them a real hope. It’s easy to get bombarded by the news, but the Good News is always present, too. Jesus is always here and at work.”
With New Mexico’s rich Catholic history that goes back centuries, she added, “I think the Dominican charism will continue to build on the tradition that was set by the Franciscans and is still present.”
After watching the ebbs and flows of the school, including the removal, return and removal again of its high school, Biava hopes the Dominicans will inspire other Catholic families in the area to return. “[The sisters] are ready to work and pound the pavement,” he said. “I’m sure these families are praying for their children every day and night, and I feel like God is answering their prayers by sending these nuns to our school.”
Among his hopes, Biava has a special one tucked away. “My dad was in the last graduating high-school class before it closed in 1968. Then my oldest sister, when it reopened, was in the first graduating class. Then it closed again,” he said. “I’m hoping maybe my son could be the first to graduate from high school there again.”
Dominic, his oldest, is currently in fourth grade. “It’s definitely in God’s providence,” Biava said. “He’s got a plan. And I’m excited to see it all play out.”
HOW TO HELP
Visit SacredHeartGallup.org: Find “Give Now” and then scroll down “Fund” until “Religious Education.” Call the parish office at (505) 722-6644 for any needed assistance.
This story was updated after posting.