Catholic education is one of the most important challenges for the Church

This post was contributed by Sr. Lois Darold, C.S.JB.

When asked to write an article for Catholic Schools Week, I recalled the advice of my English teachers – write about what you know. I went back in memory to my mother and her efforts some 60 years ago to secure a Catholic education for my brother and myself. I thank all those parents who have shared their experiences and expectations of Catholic education with me.

THEN – January 1950. It was a bitter, cold and snowy day. The movers had securely packed our belongings into the van. My brother and I stood watch over the boxes that held his Lionel Train set and my Dolls of the Nations collection. We each clutched a favorite remembrance of our childhood home. Family, school and neighborhood friends waved “good-bye.” The dreaded day had come: Dad’s work required us to move from the Bronx to New Jersey.

In the weeks preceding our move we had many questions for Mom and Dad. They prepared us honestly for this turning point in our young lives: “yes” we would come back to visit our beloved grandparents and family; “yes” we would see our neighborhood friends again; “no” we would not be going to “our school” anymore. This response always brought tears – and a faithful promise from Mom. “Yes, you will attend a new Catholic school. We will know more when we get there.”

As we talked more and more about “The Move” it became apparent that Mom had drawn two lines in the sand: (1) Since she did not know how to drive, our new home had to be located near a bus line that would take her to a local shopping area; (2) There had to be a Catholic school within Mom’s walking distance.

Young as we were, the parish school that my brother and I had attended was a “home away from home.” Mom knew that the classes were crowded, but she also knew that the teachers – at that time all Sisters – cared for their students, even if some were more strict than others. Leaving the school where we had made our First Communion and received Confirmation was a very difficult part of The Move.

After a few days of settling in, it was only a matter of a few phone calls to learn where the church, the rectory and the school were located. Mom took us to meet the pastor, register the family, and greet the school principal, who welcomed us warmly. Mom was delighted to learn that the Sisters in this school were the same Community as the ones in New York. “You will be taught well by the Sisters” Mom promised. In that era of “Sister said,” Mom trusted the Sisters implicitly.

Efficient as always, Mom had brought all our needed papers. As Sister reviewed our Report Cards there were signs of approval. Yes, we were academically prepared to enroll in Grades 3 and 4. A tour of the school made Mom very happy. The classrooms were bright, still decorated with Christmas themes. The rooms were full but learning was taking place. The voices of teachers and students seeped into the halls. One class wrote “Thank-you” notes to God. Another calculated the path of the Christmas Star . God was present and acknowledged in this school.

Back at the school office Mom began to inquire about the tuition, uniforms and other items. She knew that the move had strained all their financial resources, but she would do “whatever it takes” to give her children a Catholic education. Mom opened her purse to give Sister the Registration Fee. Sister looked up, somewhat confused. Then came the stunning news. There was no room in Grades 3 and 4 for anymore students. Enrollment would not take place until the next school year.

Mom was crestfallen, but undaunted. With all the Irish that she could muster, she firmly but courteously explained to Sister that: her children had to go to a Catholic school. Mom directed us to wait outside while she spoke with Sister. From what we could hear, we knew that Mom’s determination was in full gear. As they came out of the Office, we heard Sister say: “ Let me think about this and pray to Saint Joseph (patron saint of the parish) We’ll speak tomorrow.” True to her word Sister called the next day happy to tell us that Monsignor had approved enrolling one student beyond the limit in Grades 3 and 4. Mom had her priorities right – “whatever it takes.”

Years later, I asked Mom why she was so adamant about our attending a Catholic school. She explained that her own formal education had ended with her 8th grade Graduation. From then on she had to work to care for her mother and she attended night school to earn her high school diploma. She received a good education in the business field, but there was one thing that she lacked and sorely missed: instruction about her Catholic faith. She would do everything she could to fill that gap for her children.

NOW – I have been in the world of Catholic education for all of my ministry years. I have met many parents across these years. Their primary expectation is simply stated:

My choice for our boys to attend Catholic school was simple: I wanted my children to grow up in an environment with a strong moral compass.

Like my mother, parents today also want what is best for their children. They speak of well-prepared teachers, state of the art technology, and opportunities to develop compassion “for these, the least of my sisters and brothers.” Beyond that, they want a schooling that enables their children to “really learn the faith and experience things only Catholic schools offer, such as First Friday Mass, Christmas pageants and religious retreats” where they can deepen their relationship with God. As one parent expressed it: “If Catholic schools start to resemble public schools then why should parents pay for Catholic schools?”

No person or institution is without fault or limitations. Parents are ready to cut schools some slack as they acknowledge the difficulty of funding the Catholic school via tuition. The Catholic school faces the challenge of finding funds that will open the school door to those who cannot afford it. The Catholic school faces the challenge of maintaining its Catholic identity in an increasingly diverse society; the Catholic school faces the challenge of learning how to talk to youth, creating new expressions of the “Catholic culture.” The Catholic school faces the challenge of taking up the mission of Jesus. The Catholic school faces the challenge of bringing forth young women and men who have the commitment and determination to remember Mother Church – whatever it takes.