It has been a year for meeting challenges, adapting to changes, seizing opportunities and vastly exceeding expectations.
Now, in the midst of hardships offset by blessings too numerous to count, it’s time to celebrate Catholic schools.
“At no time in recent memory has the impact of Catholic education been more evident,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight stated in anticipation of the national Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 31-Feb. 7).
“All of our Catholic schools have continued to pursue excellence through the hardships of the pandemic,” he said. “We thank God and we celebrate all the people who make it possible.”
This year’s Catholic Schools Week theme is “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellence. Service.”
The 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools in the Jefferson City diocese will make creative observance of the week, mixing old and new traditions with necessary health and safety protocols.
Mary Immaculate School in Kirksville will still have its perennial favorite “Pajama Day,” as well as treats and daily “Stop, Drop and Pray” calls throughout the week.
Students will try to identify photos of Mary Immaculate School graduates — including teachers and parents.
“A lot of these things have to happen in the individual classrooms this year because we’re social distancing,” said Principal Ann Gray. “The staff is really stepping up to make each room special.”
The students will hold an in-school fundraiser to benefit people who need help with their utility bills.
“They’re good kids,” said Mrs. Gray. “And they’re very faith-filled.”
Leading and led
All 37 schools began this academic year with in-school instruction, including changes to daily routines to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Most have made it this far with few interruptions from the pandemic.
The combination of in-person faith formation, service projects and communal worship has helped keep students close to the sacraments and progressing in in their faith.
That’s good for them and their families.
“Some of the greatest evangelizers are the children in our schools,” said Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan Superintendent of Catholic schools. “More often than not, they are leading their parents closer to Christ.”
It’s part of a process of encounter and revelation dating back to Jesus’s ministry on earth.
“We are safekeeping a tremendous legacy,” Dr. Vader noted. “We never lose sight of that.”
“A lot going on”
COVID-19 has not stopped the Catholic schools from pressing forward in the quest for excellence.
“We’re still doing the things that are foundational and important to continue to move the schools forward,” stated Dr. Vader.
Accreditation visitations and in-place standardized tests have continued as scheduled. School families have helped with the diocesan pastoral planning process and the recent 10-county initiative to address staffing at parishes.
All of the schools have been doing self-assessments based on national standards and benchmarks.
“We’re analyzing the results now to help us see our strengths and opportunities for improvement,” said Dr. Vader.
On top of all of that, each school devised its own individual plan for conducting in-person instruction, in cooperation with local health departments and public school districts, and updated its technology with money from an anonymous donation.
“We have not been resting on our laurels,” said Dr. Vader. “We’ve got a lot going on.”
Mike Aulbur, principal of St. Pius X School in Moberly, said the school takes its motto seriously: “Be respectful, be responsible, be safe and live your faith.”
“I think right now, living your faith is a very important aspect of what we do here at St. Pius,” he said. “We provide a high-quality education, and we get to bring religion into the school.
“I think we’ve created a very positive atmosphere, and that’s why I love working here,” he said.
Everyone — from the school advisory board to the parents, students, teachers, staff and administration — has a role in maintaining that climate.
“I think we have something to be really proud of,” he said. “We are providing a great education for our students.”
That benefits the entire community.
“We’re very noticeable,” said Mr. Aulbur. “Our graduates are very often in the running for valedictorian and salutatorian in the local public high school.”
It also sends waves through the Church. Mr. Aulbur noted that with their parents’ blessing, seven St. Pius X students who aren’t Catholic are preparing to receive Sacraments of Initiation at Easter.
“Deacon John Hill is teaching them the classes,” said Mr. Aulbur. “He’s meeting with them once a week. We’re very proud of them.”
Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Hannibal and St. Joseph Parish in Palmyra, holds that the greatest mission of a Catholic school is to love.
“Yes, we must strive to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic,” he said. “But most of all, we must model for them how to love one another, the way that Christ loves us.”
Fr. Flatley often reminds parents that they are the primary teachers of their children.
A Catholic school can never take the parents’ place in leading their children to Christ, “but our little faith communities can and do model it for them in the most beautiful, communal way,” said Fr. Flatley.
“A Catholic school and all of the incredibly dedicated disciples who minister therein can be partners with the parents, not only teaching academics, but most of all, helping to form disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
This year has brought unprecedented challenges. Fr. Flatley believes there’s an opportunity in every crisis.
“The opportunity for extraordinary grace is in how we respond to the crisis,” he said. “Are we striving to trust God in the midst of it? Are we turning to fervent prayer? And perhaps most of all, are we surrendering to the will of God through it all?
“If we can do these things, we will come out on the other side with greater faith and trust in God and in His mercy,” he said.
“For the kids”
Mrs. Gray said Mary Immaculate School plans to take out a Catholic Schools Week ad in a local newspaper that everyone in Kirksville receives, highlighting the students and their achievements.
It’s part of a larger, year-round marketing effort. Staying connected with parishioners and alumni is one of the keys to the school’s success.
Mary Immaculate students help produce a video about the school each year to show parents before Mass.
The school presents blue and white “onesies” marked “Future Mary Immaculate Student” to parents of newborn babies.
Mrs. Gray said it takes tremendous work and commitment on everyone’s part for a parish to maintain a quality Catholic school.
She believes it’s well worth the effort.
“It’s for the kids — for their faith development, for the growth of their minds,” she said. “We love the kids and want them to succeed.”
The first time she visited Mary Immaculate School, a student dropped his tray in the lunchroom, sending food in all directions.
“Seven kids got up to help him clean up the mess,” she recalled. “I knew right then that this place is special.”
It’s like a family: “Parents, parishioners, everybody works together to do what’s best for the kids,” she said.
Safeguarding the truth
Father Jason Doke believes Catholic schools are even more essential today than in the past.
“It’s about passing on the practice of our faith in an ever-changing world,” said Fr. Doke, pastor of St. Martin Parish in St. Martins and moderator of the curia for the Jefferson City diocese.
Young people are now routinely exposed to things that were unimaginable to previous generations.
“We need to proclaim all the more adamantly the truth that our faith gives us,” said Fr. Doke. “Because they’re going to have a hard time finding it outside of the Church.”