Religious Education Apostolates: Teaching the Truth in Christ
Despite the profound changes in Catholic education in recent decades, some communities remain strongly committed to their teaching apostolates.
Catholic Schools Week is Jan. 26-Feb. 1. Catholic education has changed dramatically in the United States over the past 50 years, both in the number of children attending Catholic schools and the number of religious men and women who teach them.
Recently, the Register spoke with orders who enjoy their teaching apostolates and are motivated to remain in Catholic education, including the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, informally known as the Nashville Dominicans.
Dominican Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh is principal of St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville, Tenn. St. Cecilia is an all-girls Catholic high school that serves 260 students. “Our motto as Dominicans is veritas [truth],” explained Sister Anne. “We contemplate the truths of Christ and then give others the fruits of our contemplation. Our students receive the overflow of our prayer and community life as sisters.”
The academy dates back to 1860, the year of the Nashville Dominicans’ founding. That year, Bishop James Whelan of Nashville invited Dominican sisters living in Ohio to found a boarding school. (The Nashville Dominicans’ motherhouse is the original school.)
Catholics are not numerous in Tennessee, said Sister Anne, as only 3% of the state is Catholic (the least among the 50 states), but they are dedicated to their charism. There are seven Nashville Dominican sisters at St. Cecilia, five of whom teach. The sisters teach all of the school’s religion classes.
The Nashville Dominicans currently have about 300 sisters in their order; they teach in about 40 schools in dioceses throughout the U.S. They also can be found in Australia, Canada and, most recently, Scotland.
The sisters have more invitations from bishops to teach in new dioceses than they can accept, currently.
When the sisters accept an invitation to teach in a school, they send between three to eight sisters to establish a community in the diocese. They teach at both elementary schools and high schools, as well as at Aquinas College in Nashville.
Sister Anne said St. Cecilia graduates receive an excellent, all-around education, but, most importantly, “we equip them to go out and transform the culture for Christ.”
St. Cecilia graduates enter a variety of fields, but the Dominican Sisters’ goal is that “they bring the message of the Gospel to whatever they’re doing.”
Sister Anne stressed the importance of strong Catholic identity in Nashville Dominican-run schools: “Our schools exist to evangelize.”
The School Sisters of Christ the King were founded by Bishop Glennon Flavin of Lincoln, Neb., in 1976.
Bishop Flavin wanted Catholic nuns to teach in his schools but was unable to find a community to come teach in Lincoln, so he opted to found his own community. He began by recruiting a few sisters from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who were trained in teaching by another community of sisters.
Today, the School Sisters of Christ the King have 32 members, in varying stages of formation, who serve about 1,500 students in the diocese.
Sister Mary Cecilia of the School Sisters of Christ the King is principal of St. James School in Crete, Neb. St. James serves 100 students in grades K-6, about half of whom are Hispanic English-language learners.
The goal of the order, said Sister Mary, is “to bring about the reign of Christ through Catholic education.”
Not only do the sisters hope to properly form their students in the Catholic faith, she said, but they also want the students to bring home their faith and positively impact their families.
Sister Mary said that many of their students retain the faith and have gone on to have prominent positions in society. Additionally, some have gone on to pursue vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Three former students have become nuns within the order.
Sister Mary said that she was drawn to the community while in college, when she met the sisters. She had planned to become a teacher, and after interacting with the sisters, “God planted something special in my heart.”
She is grateful for her vocation and her order. “I love doing the work of Christ, bringing his message to the little ones.”
Ann Arbor Dominicans
The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist also are dedicated to teaching.
Cardinal John O’Connor of New York canonically established the community with four sisters on Feb. 9, 1997; today, there are 120 sisters whose average age is 29. Their apostolate is Catholic teaching; they operate the Spiritus Sanctus Academies in Michigan and teach in Catholic schools in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Texas.
Dominican Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, one of the founding sisters and vocation director for the community, said of their teaching, “We like to think every single child we teach is a fruit and that each has been positively impacted in his relationship with God. Ours is a holistic approach, touching mind, body and soul. We seek to put a Catholic culture in our schools.”
Their ministry is in high demand. “We’re constantly getting requests,” Sister Joseph said. “Mother Assumpta [Long] has 350 on her desk right now. We choose where to go based on the sisters we have available and the ability of our sisters to live our consecrated life in the diocese. We send out our sisters in groups of at least four. They teach grades K-12 in different schools but live in one convent. We’re always praying and asking the Holy Spirit how to best use us.”
Father Victor Szczurek is headmaster of St. Michael’s Abbey Preparatory School in Silverado, Calif.
Operated by the Norbertine Fathers, the school opened as St. Michael’s Junior Seminary and was converted to a boarding high school for boys. It is at full capacity, with 67 students.
The Norbertines’ chief work is the sacred liturgy; however, they’ve also had a significant involvement in education. Father Szczurek said, “In fact, it was monastic schools like our own that helped form Christendom in Europe and throughout the world. They were the light during the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’”
The school’s purpose, he continued, is “to make boys Catholic gentlemen … faith, academics and character: not only teaching the boys, but forming them in an environment that is 100% Catholic.”
The program includes morning Mass and 40 minutes of daily Eucharistic adoration in the evening, with confession available. “By the time they finish four years of St. Michael’s Preparatory, they are convinced of the vital importance of the Church’s sacraments,” explained the priest-headmaster. “That’s the most important thing we can teach them.”
Father Szczurek believes St. Michael’s Prep has been successful in forming Catholic gentlemen because “I know we have ‘succeeded’ when I see alumni come back to ask us Norbertines to do their weddings, baptize their children and return for our nightly Holy Hour and confession.”
The Norbertine Abbey that shares the grounds with St. Michael’s Prep is in the process of being relocated to a bigger site, allowing for the future expansion of the school to 100 students.
But with any expansion, care must be taken to maintain the school’s environment. Father Szczurek concluded, “Too many schools have ceased teaching the faith. The most important thing about Catholic education is that it be Catholic.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.