I recently read Sr. Helen Prejean’s latest book River of Fire and found it relevant and inspiring to our work in Catholic education. The book is worth your time for spiritual inspiration and learning about the changes in the Church over the past 50 years that continue to impact our schools. I think it might be a book that people are still reading 50 years from now.
The book serves as Prejean’s memoir up until she began fighting capital punishment and accompanying prisoners to their deaths. It’s a prequel of sorts which describes her family life, her call to the sisterhood, her novitiate years, her early teaching experience in Catholic schools, her work in parish life and her conversion to one of our country’s most outspoken opponents to the death penalty.
River of Fire addresses common misconceptions in our American Catholic milieu. I often hear Catholics mourning the loss of teaching sisters, wishing we could have more vocations while simultaneously blaming Vatican II for the dearth of religious teaching vocations. But how often do you listen to the stories of sisters like Sr. Helen who entered the convent before Vatican II and subsequently stayed? Prejean’s account is illuminating, educational, moving, and at times, quite funny due to her Cajun knack for telling good stories.
She traces the changes wrought by Vatican II with equal parts excitement and fear. Like all good memoirs, it’s personal. Prejean was not allowed to cultivate “particular” friendships in her order until Vatican II opened up those restrictions as the council called all religious orders to return to their roots. She then is able to develop friendships and the story of losing her friend is moving. River of Fire is also an exploration of the meaning of vocation as she deciphers God’s calling amid all the changes in society and in the Church.
Prejean embraces the Vatican II vision of church and discovers the implication for her life—first, away from the Catholic school classroom, then toward further education, and eventually toward working for social justice. She discovers the impact of racism which had impacted her native Louisiana and began to understand God’s call toward working for change.
Prejean’s discussion of the efforts toward integrating Catholic schools (yes, we need to remember that Catholic schools were segregated in the South) is a particularly enlightening section for Catholic school leaders. While some schools decided to limit their admission of black students (so as not to upset the white parents), her order decided to completely integrate their high school for girls. This decision led to its closing soon after but Prejean expresses admiration for her order’s decision to stand for integration.
River of Fire was interesting, spiritually uplifting and moving. I recommend the book for personal study and reflection as well as faculty/principal book groups. A survey of book reviews of the book:
- LA Times review
- America magazine review
- NPR review including an interview with Prejean
- New York Times review
In this week’s newsletter, I explore the impactful new book from Sr. Helen Prejean, River of Fire, and its implications to our work in Catholic schools. The Top 5 links:
- The NPR review and interview of Prejean are worth your time. You can find them near the end of the blog.
- In the Leadership section, George Couros’s latest blog post on “Sharing our Story” is practical advice to school leaders to help find the right stories to tell.
- The next article “The Wrong Ways to Strengthen Culture” is a good reminder of the importance of working to improve our school cultures.
- In the Teaching & Learning section, “Class Size Matters” explores the current research and misconceptions about class size. It seems this comes up every year as schools struggle to find the right balance between classrooms of vitality and individual attention.
- In the Miscellany section, the article on how Costco broke the rules of retail by focusing on customers, not shareholders, has implications for how we run our schools.
Have a great week!
This week’s podcast features conversations with three new superintendents: Kally Lazzara, the new superintendent of the Diocese of Richmond; Dr. Joseph Vorbach, the new superintendent of the Diocese of Arlington; and Thomas Carroll, the new superintendent of the Archdiocese of Boston. With each new superintendent, we discuss their three unique pathways to leadership and the challenges and lessons they have encountered already. Each of these three dynamic leaders shares a new vision for leadership.