As a young mom with a daughter ready to attend kindergarten, I was not sure which school I could trust my young and impressionable daughter to. Who would be good enough to teach her? I worked in the public division, yet my heart was being called to the Catholic school. I knew no one who worked there, so I decided to make an appointment to have a tour of Holy Family Academy in Brooks.
When I walked in, I felt something different. There was a sense of peace and calm. A welcoming presence washed over me. The Bible verse, “Let the children come to me” was exactly what I saw myself doing; letting my child go to these teachers. I wanted my daughter’s faith formation to begin with authentic relationships where prayer was spoken and open, and honest conversations were had on a daily basis. When I reflected on who would be good enough to teach my child, it was God. He had to be placed first as an educator and in my daughter’s life. I was grateful to know that I had a choice where my daughter could attend school. I know God led me to Holy Family Academy.
It has been wonderful to watch her grow and to see the amazing woman she has become, mostly due to the teachers who shaped and molded her and taught her of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. This was where the seeds were planted. When our second daughter was born, we knew that she would attend Holy Family Academy as well. No questions asked. The decision was easy to make!
My work at the public school division made it tough for me to share in celebrations and events with her. I remember at a church event on Pentecost Sunday I walked up to the principal of Holy Family Academy and I told her that I was going to work for her one day. Unbelievably, that next year I was hired and I have been with Christ the Redeemer ever since. I have not looked back. Here I can openly pray for a student and make the sign of my faith. I am so grateful to work where my daughters went to school and be a part of their learning. I feel so blessed.
I have learned that God stretches you when you least expect it. I am not the same person I was twenty years ago. He has been at work leading and guiding me, as I walk and pray in ways I had never done before. The opportunities the school has offered me have been such a gift. Face to Face and NET retreats, listening to musicians and guest speakers, school masses, adoration, the Martha Retreat Centre, Faith Days, and Mission trips…all of these experiences have such a special place in my heart. When Mother Mary called me to go to Medjugorje and Knock Ireland, Christ the Redeemer allowed me to go. World Youth Day and the Holy Land were only dreams in my eyes, yet God made it a reality. It is all by the grace of God!
God has stretched me in my classes at work. When teachers have encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try teaching a new class, their words, “I believe you could do this”, made a huge difference. Their encouragement was a gift. My students have been my everything. They are the reason I am called to my vocation. I have joy when I wake up and know I get to do what I love. This is not a job, it is my calling and I am so glad God chose me to be a part of the Brooks Catholic Schools and Catholic Education. God is so good, all the time!
These are words that come to mind when I reflect on my experience of Catholic Education in Brooks. My husband and I didn’t know what to expect coming here with two young children in tow 20 years ago, but this place has a way of grabbing hold, seeping into your heart and not letting go; it has a way of becoming home.
There are many people who have influenced my development as a Catholic educator: administrators who recognized my potential and encouraged me to have faith in my ability; colleagues who were, and are, my greatest role models; and students, who taught me more about life and faith than I could ever teach them and whose experiences showed me what courage really is. What I value most about St Joseph’s Collegiate. is threefold. It’s the people. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit working on hearts and changing people. It’s a true desire to be “a community, rooted in faith, seeking excellence for all”. It’s a family.
I’d like to share story of a young man I’ll call Cas* who came to St. Joseph's for only one year. He had a great smile, and he loved basketball. He was respectful and attentive but wasn’t achieving very well. One day, Cas approached me and asked for help. He described his life at home with no rules; he could do what he wanted, when he wanted - and he did. Although this might sound great, Cas wasn’t happy. He needed parameters. Together, that day, we created some expectations: he would work in my classroom every day after school, and most importantly, he would call me every night at 10 pm to let me know that he was home. That’s all he needed - someone to care enough to set some boundaries. Cas’ grades and self-esteem improved drastically, and somewhere along the line, he started calling me “mom”. This young man left an indelible mark on my heart and this experience, to me, encapsulates how I feel about Catholic education. We don’t know the impact we have on students - a kind word, a listening ear, an open door. What an incredible responsibility and an incredible privilege!
I feel deep gratitude for my time in Brooks - to be part of all the amazing graduation celebrations and to witness the growth of our school into a vibrant and diverse community. God calls people here for a reason, and I know I was called to be in this place at this time. Leading a school during a pandemic is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and it has challenged me to the core. But I am able to appreciate my freedom, my family, my upbringing, and my faith even more. I am thankful that God trusted me to do His work. What an incredible blessing!
As I move on from this amazing community, I know that the Holy Spirit will continue to be present here, and with that knowledge, there will be many more blessings, more challenges, more gratitude, and more growth. Thank you, Lord, for this incredible gift.
*not his real name
I was born into a faithful farm family who attended church regularly. My sister and I were among the little people who flocked to Sunday School and ran around the church basement while our parents served coffee and visited with other members of the congregation. It was with sincere devotion that I was baptized as an infant and confirmed by my own choice as an adult in the United Church.
My journey continued in the United Church when I was married, and my husband and I welcomed two beautiful children into our family. We were living in Edmonton and I was teaching at a public school when my husband received the news that he was being transferred to work in Calgary. Shortly after arriving there, we needed to look at schools for the children. As a teacher, I started to research the schools in the area and found myself drawn to the Calgary Catholic Board. My husband was baptized Catholic and so we enrolled in the neighbourhood Catholic School.
I was thrilled with the education my children received and even more excited about the learning they were doing in regard to faith. They came home with stories about their lessons and asked questions about what they were learning. The more they asked, the more I thought about my responses and I was not satisfied. I attended liturgies at school and asked questions of my husband but felt like I needed more in order to support my children on this path that I had chosen for them.
Soon, I found myself in the office at St. Albert the Great Parish and enrolled in the RCIA program. “Information is what I need”. “It is for the children”. “I am happy with my faith and the United Church”. These were the lines that I was telling myself and they were what got me started; my feet in the door I guess you could say. As we hear so often, “God works in mysterious ways”. The more I learned at RCIA, and the more I volunteered at the school, the more invested I became.
Wednesday nights became the best night of the week as I joined my sponsor and delved deeper into the faith. RCIA allowed me to grow and expand on the faith that had been fostered in me as a child. As an adult, I am acutely aware of the fact that I had an opportunity to look at faith in a new way and to choose it for myself (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and many other faithful companions). Now, as a Catholic school teacher, I am blessed daily to learn and grow in faith alongside my students. It is with humble appreciation that I embrace each day of learning that will last a lifetime and beyond.
Some of my fondest memories attending a catholic school were walking the 2 blocks or so to St. Mary’s Parish for school mass. Along with the holy mass itself, I enjoyed the brief reprieve from school work, a chance to visit with my classmates while walking, and singing in the school choir. I had learned harmonies from my mom singing at mass on Sundays, (and to Celine Dion at home) and loved to create music alongside my peers. Welcoming people at the door, reading Scripture, playing an instrument, and intercessory prayer; school mass gave us the opportunity to practice using our gifts for the glory of the Lord.
When I was 16, our school sent a bus-load of students to Prud’Homme Saskatchewan to attend a Face to Face Retreat. I later learned that Prud’Homme was also the first retreat my now husband attended, although neither of us remember meeting. At the retreat there were talks about God’s love and the saints, praise and worship sessions, time to attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one on one prayer ministry, and musical Adoration. I was moved by the love these young people had for our Lord.
During one of the worship songs, I vividly remember looking at the worship leaders thinking how lucky they were to witness this fire at each retreat. In that moment I whispered under my breath, “Lord, it would be so cool to do that.” The Lord answered that little prayer and 3 years later I was given the privilege of singing and serving with Face to Face Ministries for what would become 4 incredibly faith formative years. During these years, the seeds of service, self-sacrifice, prayer, and faith that my Catholic education had rooted in me, blossomed into an undeviating love for our Lord that continues to grow today.
Now raising our own 4 children, I am so grateful to pass along the good, the true, and beautiful to them through the gift of Catholic education. I am grateful to be able to root their identity in Jesus, our firm foundation, especially as our world faces such confusion of identity today. I am grateful to introduce to them the Sacraments that bring true life and peace to their souls. I am grateful to read to them the lives of the Saints so that they have role-models of virtue, and someone to relate to in times when they fail. I am grateful to teach them the rosary, so that one day they would recognize the importance of prayer and Our Lady’s intercession. I am grateful to bring them to Mass and Adoration so that they know our Lord deserves their time, and so that they know where to go when facing a difficult decision.
In a word, I am grateful for Catholic education because it was an extension of my domestic church; it cultivated the virtues my parents instilled in us at home while preparing me for a life of docility to the Spirit.
For a second year in a row, gathering restrictions will prevent graduates from Calgary Catholic high schools from participating in the types of graduation ceremonies that many of us associate with a typical Grade 12 year. Gone are the cap and gown ceremonies with families packed into the auditorium, the valedictory address delivered to thunderous cheers from the assembly and the banquet meal shared together with peers. In our Catholic high schools, this also means that the traditional celebration of a school graduation Mass with classmates and faculty will not be proceeding. Many of us remember these traditions fondly and feel a sense of remorse for this year’s graduates that they will miss these familiar rites of passage.
However, school communities have responded to the challenges with innovative solutions and alternatives. Graduation is too important to miss – this is the culmination of many years of effort for students and their families. Graduation also holds a hopeful promise for the future, a time where young women and men further explore their place in the world and come to a deeper understanding of themselves and God’s creation. As a Catholic community, we fail to respond to the goodness and blessings abundantly displayed around us when we miss the opportunity to celebrate our graduates.
This year, our high schools are building on what they learned last year to create personal and meaningful celebrations to acknowledge students and their families. A special Mass for graduates was celebrated by Bishop McGrattan at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Rockies and the recording will be shared with every graduate and their families. Schools have recorded valedictory speeches and greetings from school staff to share electronically. And, taking advantage of good weather and abundant space outdoors, schools are arranging “drive-through” events and photo opportunities for students to receive their certificates in a safe manner.
Far from being a token celebration, this adapted way of marking graduations allows for an intimate and personal celebration for each individual. As Bishop McNally High School principal, Neil O’Flaherty affirms, “Despite students being asked to repeatedly acclimate to the uncertainty of the coronavirus, celebrating one’s graduation, with family members lovingly alongside, is one tradition that COVID 19 could not prevent. Each high school has made the event uniquely their own and, as we have done at Bishop McNally, each student’s personal accomplishment has been individually (and collectively as a class) celebrated, in a safe manner, with a creative and memorable flair befitting any graduation, past or present.”
Catholic schools have felt particularly called to create spaces of welcome and encouragement for our students during the pandemic. Faced with restrictions on gathering, we are paying special attention to engaging, seeing and celebrating each student. Mackenzie McManus graduated in 2020 from All Saints High School under similar conditions. Her grad class was the first graduating year from the high school in Calgary’s deep south and she fondly remembers the experience of the drive-through grad. “The important part of graduation for me was to be able to walk the stage and get a picture in my cap and gown”, says McManus, “The drive-through grad did that quite nicely.” She noted how much effort it took for staff to arrange the drive-through. Allowing that special time for each graduate extended the event to three days for teachers and support staff who took turns holding congratulations signs and cheering for each student who came through.
Please pray for all Catholic school graduates and their families during this month of June. May the experience in our schools equip them with the knowledge and wisdom they need to continue to grow, learn and serve.
A prayer for Graduates
Lord God, giver of all wisdom and grace,
bless the students who have worked diligently
to prepare for graduation.
Guide and direct them as they go forth
to encounter new opportunities and challenges in the world.
As they continue to nurture their gifts,
help them to stand up for their Christian beliefs
and to further develop values and virtues
that promote communities of fellowship and caring.
May they always act with responsibility and practice integrity
that they may be living witnesses of your word
and instruments of your peace.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen
The vocation to teach is a great gift. To authentically live one’s faith life in a Catholic School unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit, drawing those who are searching, those who are yearning to grow toward God together. Being a witness to the mighty power of the Spirit I can testify to the fact that the Spirit is moving in our schools. I have been blessed to minister to the children through weekly gatherings in our gym under the auspices of “Hymn Sing” – a time of preparation for our school liturgical life – through song, scripture, and prayer. The tiny seeds that are sown grow in places and in ways that are surprising and lovely to behold.
It was after a long weekend that a grade 3 student came running toward me in the hallway one bright Monday morning. “Mme, I have to talk to you. I had a dream last night and God wants us to have a Jesus Club at our school. I know that I love Jesus and I know that there are other kids who love Jesus too, but Mme, I don’t know who they are! We need to have a place, we need to have a time where we can find those kids and talk about this. Can you help?”
This was the beginning of our school’s Jesus Club – an idea inspired by the Holy Spirit through the enthusiasm and energy of a child who wished to live her faith authentically. Throughout that school year, 108 students, one third of our school’s population, journeyed through our lunchtime Jesus Club, growing through scripture, prayer and games to walk more closely with Our Lord.
The following school year we began, through our Hymn Sing time, to explore how to live the corporal works of mercy as a response to that year’s faith theme “Knock and the door will be opened.” The call for us to care for the needs of the poor, the need of the sick, the needs of those who are enslaved resonated deeply with the students, especially with one boy. An idea began brewing within him. A call to action soon followed. He harnessed the energy and enthusiasm of 5 of his school mates, and they formed “Little Saints: the corporal works of mercy in action”. These children championed one bottle drive each month to raise money for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Mustard Seed, and Feed the Hungry before COVID closed our schools last year. Through their promotion of each bottle drive, they spoke to the student body, made posters, counted, and sorted bottles and made hundreds of friendship pins and bracelets as rewards for participants.
These children who receive the Word with such loving fervor are examples to us all. They are the fertile ground on which the good seed falls and bears fruit. Their openness to the power of the Holy Spirit inspires their actions and forming tomorrow’s leaders. I am privileged to work with children every day in our Catholic schools. Their enthusiasm serves to inspire us to become like little children who receive the Word wholeheartedly and run with abandon into the vineyard of the Lord – helping His Kingdom come.
“You must be Olivia. We’ve been waiting for you!” These words stand out as the first time in my life I had felt genuinely welcomed. I was a cradle Catholic, but I was hesitant about faith. I’d accepted a position at a Catholic school under the guise that I’d gone to a Catholic school, so I could surely teach at one. I didn’t even really want to be a teacher – my practicum experiences had left a sour taste in my mouth (seemed apropos, given the general trajectory of my life – disappointment after disappointment after disappointment.)
Imagine my surprise when, after a totally-unexpected job offer, I walked into St. Joseph’s Collegiate in Brooks, Alberta, ready for more disappointment, only to be welcomed with the most genuine of greetings: “We’ve been waiting for you!”
Waiting? Waiting for me? For me? What for? I was a disappointment. Never good enough. Never accomplished enough. I’d always been convinced that the only thing those around me saw was my failure. I worked so, so hard to combat these beliefs, but my strength wasn’t enough. The harder I worked to prove myself, the stronger the lies about my identity piled up. I believed that I would never amount to anything worthy of love.
Those lies brought me to the brink on a regular basis. I was fractured. Cracked. Even so, the light got in. Before the Holy Spirit nudged me not-so-gently from Nova Scotia to Brooks, chance meetings with those who knew Jesus punctuated my life: Sarah, a classmate in a first-year English class at university, whose quiet faith both intrigued and unsettled me.
She’d invite me to faith activities on campus, but that just “wasn’t my style.” Claudette and Theresa, two religious sisters who frequented the gym at which I was employed. They were so, so kind, and I always felt that they saw the real me – the me that even I was incapable of fully accepting. But I never followed where I now know they were praying for my heart to be led: to Jesus.
God brought me to Brooks. Slowly but surely, He’s been delivering me from the weight of the lies I’d carried around my entire life. Over the course of the last decade and a half, He’s shown me what love looks like, and He’s revealed that love in a myriad of ways.
Don’t get me wrong. I still struggle, but now I see the lies that I believed for so long for what they are. The sure knowledge that they are lies and that God is healing me makes the weight of suffering manageable. Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” – this is the absolute truth.
It was with arms wide open that I was invited into my new place of employment, my new city, my new life. It was with arms wide open that I was invited to experience the miraculous healing of a loving Saviour. I’ve been a teacher with Christ The Redeemer Catholic Schools in Brooks for 14 years, and even though I have a myriad of stories that reveal the amazing opportunities Catholic education has afforded me, it’s that greeting the moment I first stepped into St. Joseph’s Collegiate – a greeting that so very much juxtaposed with the life I’d lived up until that point – that will forever be my first and most fundamental memory of Catholic Education in Brooks. It’s a love that I know intimately now, and a love that allows me to welcome others - with open arms, naturally.
In times we couldn’t imagine, even just a year ago, we have found many different ways to rely on and share our faith. Working in a Catholic school division has provided me with many opportunities to pray and grow with my fellow staff and students. This year has been no exception. At a time when physically being together is not acceptable, we have found ways to still gather in our faith. In Fort McMurray Catholic Schools, this has taken on many new forms.
School liturgies have always been an integral part of who we are as a Catholic school. At Father Mercredi High School, liturgies are predominantly led by a student liturgy team. We wondered what this would look like this year. How would we keep this very important part of our prayer life alive?
We have found ways to celebrate together, from our individual classrooms. We have hosted several school-wide liturgies using Google meet. I, along with my student liturgy team, have continued to lead the school in prayer, each from our own classroom. Students now know how to speak to a computer screen, and yet when we listen, we can hear the collective prayers through the hallways as all students join in response.
As a Division, we also felt it was more important than ever this year to share faith with our families. In the past, families would be invited into the schools for our liturgies, so this year we needed a new plan. During the initial public health restrictions last March, we started Thankful Thursday Liturgies, where I would go live on the Fort McMurray Catholic Schools’ Facebook account from the Chapel at our school. The liturgies were well received and we felt this was an excellent way to continue the engagement of our community and families this year.
This year has also brought me many opportunities to learn from other members of our staff, as we continue to look for new ways to engage the students in their faith from afar. When we went back to off-site learning at the end of November, just as Advent was beginning, it was important that we find ways to not only observe the importance of the Advent season, but to have students reflect on the meaning of the season. This prompted a series of short videos made in my home, with the help of my 9 year old daughter. These videos included the lighting of our family Advent wreath and a series of images depicting the theme of the week with an explanation of what each week symbolized in our Advent journey. Teachers shared these videos in their google classrooms, along with a google form asking all staff and students to respond to the weekly theme. Responses were compiled into a weekly image, which was shared on our social media, prompting more conversation and discussion within our community.
Personally, I have learned over the last number of months, that while we may not be able to gather in large school groups, or even be in the building together; our faith, which is such an important part of who we are as a Catholic School Community, has continued to grow and blossom.
In ‘The Idea of a University,’ John Henry Newman (now Saint) outlined his vision of a liberal education that spoke of the virtues and purpose of a university. Originally an Oxford man, his famed conflict at Oriel College where he argued with the Provost that a tutor needed more engagement with undergraduates, resulted in Newman being cast out of his beloved institution and turning instead to a life of research. It wasn’t until many years later that he was drawn back directly into the academy when he was invited to help found the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. And although there were too many obstacles for the university to succeed, it galvanized Newman’s love for and understanding of the unique gifts of Catholic education. Indeed, in his Letters and Diaries he is quoted as saying, ‘from the very first month of my Catholic existence … I wished for a Catholic University.’
Newman’s now famous treatise reminds us of the unique charter of a liberal arts, and of a Catholic, university: ‘the end of University Education,’ he tells us, is to provide ‘a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.’ Newman recognizes that true education is about the ‘real cultivation of the mind’, one that ‘grasps what it perceives through the senses … which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey.’ Newman was not advocating for a narrow definition of one area of study but for the importance of developing critical thinking skills, a well-rounded understanding of poets, historians, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians and more. It is this comprehensive field of understanding, embedded in an unshakable moral foundation, that would allow graduates to enter ‘with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.’
This flexibility and transferability is often what our Catholic universities use to defend and define the liberal arts education that we provide. In response to the demand, at times from Government itself, that we should focus exclusively on the trades or jettison the arts writ large to focus on true vocational training for jobs, pundits like myself write impassioned articles debunking the false notion that our graduates fail to forge incredible careers. We cite extensive evidence of the impact that Arts graduates have at the top of Fortune 500 companies, heading top law firms, and more. And while this defensiveness is predictable if tedious, it is a reminder of the danger of contemporary society’s devaluation of the principles of a Catholic, liberal education.
Beyond the public apologia, however, our Catholic institutions in Canada do more than defend against narrow pigeonholing. The true work of our institutions is to create holistic learning hubs, where intellectual culture is not chauvinistic but pluralistic by nature; where social capital isn’t defined by dollars but by public accountability; and acts of charity are not tax write-offs but imbedded in the very purpose of human understanding and behaviour. Yes, we want our students to have incredible careers, and they do — but we remind them always that they have a higher calling, which is to transform society for the better and to advocate for the common good.
For John Cappucci, the Principal of Assumption University, ‘the greatest challenge facing Catholic higher education is demonstrating that attending a Catholic university or college is more than just learning about Catholicism. It is about linking Catholicism to the challenges of the daily work. For example, following the example of Pope Francis’ Laudado Si’. Peter Meehan, President at St. Jerome’s University, argues that ‘the journey to truth includes both faith and reason. Uniting the heart and the mind, faith and reason allow us to explore the questions facing humanity, from biological and business ethics, ecumenism, ageing, death and dying, to the ecology, globalization and issues of responsible citizenship and government. Confident in Christian truth without being proselytizing or triumphal, we see liberal arts education as underlying a deeper human need to grasp the world in all of its complexities.’
These values are timeless, but they are also relevant to our contemporary challenges. David Sylvester, President of the University of St. Michael’s College makes this point about the pandemic itself: ‘Catholic universities, because they are fundamentally oriented to building up the common good and their long-standing community partnerships, have been at the forefront of the COVID response and have been real pillars of hope not just for their students, staff and alumni, but for their neighbours. It really did expose the need for the work that Catholic universities undertake and the servant leadership our students and faculty provide.’
Catholic colleges and universities have also been at the heart of creating important ecumenical conversations, understanding that dialogue between faith communities is critical to an empowered and empathetic world. One of the challenges that Catholic postsecondary institutions often face is that they are assumed to be theological schools or exclusive enclaves. In fact, our institutions are open to all, and they revel in the conversation that they generate with different faith communities, and indeed with the wider world itself, secular or otherwise. In the end, our institutions focus on the life of the student, pushing for a holistic education: mind, body and spirit. It is not unusual for students to flourish in our environment when they have felt uncomfortable in the public institutions.
Recently, at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, I was delighted to receive two letters from both a parent and a former student, thanking the institution for the foundational learning, and the comprehensive education, we provide. The reason for the correspondence: the student had just completed both an internship at the Indiana University School of Medicine and graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, and then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship position with the Harvard School of Medicine and Boston Children’s Hospital, the top-ranked paediatric hospital in the U.S. For the father, our small Catholic university allowed his daughter ‘to develop academically, emotionally, personally and spiritually.’ He concluded, ‘As the Chinese proverb says, “When you drink water, think of its source.’” For his daughter, it was the pastoral and individualized experience that allowed a ‘soft-spoken’ and shy individual ‘to grow and gain courage to participate and ask questions.’ She concluded: ‘The path towards a Ph.D. truly takes a village, and I am privileged to have had you all as teachers and mentors.’
The twenty-two Catholic institutions represented by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada all look to this type of testimonial to encapsulate the goal and the values of our institutions. As Pope Francis has argued, Catholic education is called to build a humanism that ‘proposes a vision of society centred on the human person,’ and that draws on ‘the great testimonies of the saints and holy educators, whose example is a beacon’ that can illuminate our service, and that is dedicated to the ‘mission of offering horizons that are open to transcendence.’ That surely is the ‘end’ of Catholic higher education — and in that respect our work is just beginning.
G.K. Chesterton was a British writer of vast influence in the early 20th century, penning plays, novels, poems, and hundreds of articles and essays. He employed humour, intelligence, and humility in defense of sanity, of Christianity, and particularly of his chosen faith: Catholicism, and his work remains in wide circulation today, in many languages, touching Catholics and other Christians around the world. His writing trains the mind, challenges our preconceptions, and brings many closer to Christ.
St. Isidore Learning Center in Elk Island Catholic Schools, is a relatively new online school, and in some respects we were still looking for our particular charism when, in the fall of 2019, we started talking with some folks from the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton in the United States about their network of Chesterton Academies. The Chesterton Schools Network delivers a joyful, Catholic, classical curriculum through which students explore Literature and History, from the ancient to the modern, along with Theology, Philosophy, Latin, and the Fine Arts. A classical education, but in the Chesterton spirit: faithful, full of wonder and humour, without the stuffiness many would assume comes with such subjects.
“Are any of your schools online?” we asked. The answer was no. “Would you be open to the possibility of working with a publicly funded Catholic, online school from Canada?” we wondered. Yes indeed! Conversations ensued and relationships grew, and in time we submitted a proposal, which was in essence a concordance of the two curricula, ultimately a way to deliver Alberta Education courses, meeting Alberta outcomes and requirements, but doing so in a Chestertonian manner that met all the knowledge outcomes and the sequenced approach employed by Chesterton Academies.
That led us to this year. We launched as a school within a school, the Chesterton Academy of St. Isidore, with a cohort of over 60 students from across the province, a truly joyous and invigorating group of teenagers who are keen to learn and laugh together, studying online. We recently placed students in the traditional House system, a joyous occasion, in their Houses of Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and Chrysostom. We’ve chosen Prefects, and started our first extracurricular club (a Philosophy club, and initiated by teenagers!) We’re already hearing from new parents, interested in next year.
Alberta is a place of educational choice, and among Alberta schools one can find Sports Academies, Fine Arts Academies, Outdoor based education, Academic Excellence and Vocational training - all manner of programming. And now, in a public separate school, we have a classical Catholic school: a Chesterton Academy.
When I am asked to define what makes a Catholic school unique, aside from Religion classes, I often reply that it’s about the faith-based education, which is wholistic and permeates each subject, each class, each doorway, each heart. It’s a feeling.
For years, I didn’t know how to explain the “feeling” to those who hadn’t experienced it for themselves. Then I returned to school and completed a degree in Journalism, and it was my new career that helped derive that explanation.
As a community news reporter I have been invited into several schools in Okotoks and area, and though still intangible there is a different feel to walking inside the Catholic schools as opposed to the public. There is warmth; one can sense the presence of God in the smiles that greet them, in the crosses and images that mark the entrance to the school. This is not to say public schools are cold and unfeeling places, but the faith, the gifts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the halls of a Catholic school are palpable.
Perhaps nothing spoke to me more than Christmas concert season, during which reporters take in concerts from each school over the course of three weeks. I noted a marked difference in the calm, the reverence and respect in the air of Advent celebrations – whether in church sanctuaries or school gyms – as opposed to the hectic, often chaotic public productions that focused more on snow and gifts than the birth of Jesus.
In those moments, in the peace I feel as I enter a Catholic school, I am grateful for the education I received in these same halls years ago. I am grateful for the opportunity to have my children grace the same schools, feel that same embrace of faith in their education journey, know that God is ever-present, and learn to treat one another as the images of the Lord we are.
The values they espouse, the empathy they have gained, and the ability to see God’s work in every day life are treasures I hope they cherish throughout their lives.
Some still do not understand what I mean when I describe the feeling of walking into a Catholic school – of the warmth that overwhelms the senses; of appreciating you have entered a house of faith and pure, real joy; of knowing your children are in safely in God’s hands as their teachers guide them, as they learn and shape their life view and growing minds.
But I understand, and my children understand – and we will be forever grateful for the opportunity to benefit from a Catholic education.
Living and working in Brooks, about one hour west of Medicine Hat on the Trans-Canada highway, results in long bus trips for school teams. The longest bus trips are reserved for the 6-man football team. This is because the league is province-wide, so travelling to and from Edmonton in one day for a game is not out of the ordinary.
It’s interesting to remember the conversations that occur on bus trips that long. I have had the opportunity to drive the bus for the football team on several occasions. Usually, the rides are juxtaposed by periods of silent snoring and cacophonous adolescent male singing, but sometimes conversations of substance emerge.
I remember driving home from a game one day a couple of years ago when two of our senior players were sitting near the front with the head coach and myself. I was driving. The topic of relationships came up. These two players were tough, intelligent men. They were survivors. They had come to Canada a few years before from Colombia. Neither had a father that was active in their lives, and both exuded swagger and machismo. Both were involved in long-term relationships with young women, also from Colombia.
In the process of the conversation, the question of love, and what it really meant, came up. What does it mean to truly love another person? The coach and I embraced this opportunity to reflect on and explain the sacrificial nature of love that comes from Christ and that we are called to mirror this kind of love in our relationships with others. These two boys were engrossed in the conversation. They really wanted to know how to be a good partner to their girlfriends, how to love them properly. They knew that secular society’s explanation for love was incomplete, and they were thirsting for wisdom and truth.
The beauty of Catholic education is that these conversations can happen openly and honestly, even on a long bus ride back from a football game. The truth of Christ’s love for us and how that love is the exemplar for our relationships was fully shared and with God’s grace, settled in the hearts of those two men. Almost three years later, both these men are excelling in post-secondary education and both are still with the girlfriends they had when that conversation occurred. Hopefully, one day, I will be invited to a wedding or two!
As Catholic educators, it’s important to take time this Lent to embrace opportunities to share your faith with your students. Christ truly is the way, the truth, and the life! It may even make a long, tiring bus ride one of the most memorable moments in your car.
For students in our Catholic schools, Shrove Tuesday heralds the coming of Lent. This year, however, for many schools, there were no pancakes prepared by staff or community volunteers. The pancake breakfast, a tradition beloved by students and staff, like so many other community celebrations, have been impacted by COVID-19. This includes Ash Wednesday.
Inherent to our Ash Wednesday ritual are the words spoken at the tracing of the cross on our forehead: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” This year, within schools, there were no words spoken, nor a cross traced upon the forehead. Instead, a reverent silence was observed as our chaplains sprinkled ashes upon our heads. This was different from our normal experience of receiving the blessed ashes. Seeing the cross of ashes on the foreheads of friends and school staff is always intriguing for students and for others in the wider community who often ask what the mark means. We might say something to the effect of: “The blessed ashes remind us that we are marked by God and demonstrates to others that we are committing to change, a conversion of heart, in preparation for Easter.”
This year, however, there were no casual inquiries about ashes upon foreheads. Again, this is one of the effects of the pandemic. We understand that the experience of some students and staff in terms of our faith celebrations, many relegated to online experiences, are not as we have been accustomed. There is, however, consistency in our Ash Wednesday scriptures. This steadfastness of the Word is important especially during these times of change.
The readings we experience on Ash Wednesday help our students and staff understand that we all have a need for repentance and that “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in kindness” (Joel 2:13). St. Paul reminds us that the world sees the presence of Christ in the way we act (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:1). This is central to the Catholic school whereby through action and word, and the example of Christ, students are inspired to learn and are prepared to live fully and to serve God in one another. Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are to be conducted humbly. These actions are inherent in our personal Lenten journey.
Although the pandemic has changed many of the routines in our schools and impacted how we perform our rituals, we know that our faith traditions and the gift of Catholic Education give us resiliency and the hope to persevere in times of challenge. We are each called to bear witness to Jesus who models the necessity to walk humbly with God and with each other towards the renewal, hope, and transformation that culminates in Easter. Lent invites us to journey through the desert of our sin to the foot of the cross and ultimately, to share in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. We are, after all, Easter people. That will not change!
For the past four years, at St. Matthew School, our community has been faithful to praying the holy rosary daily in our school chapel. Each day, we have invited students from Division I, II or III to meet me in the chapel to pray the rosary before lunch and the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 pm before dismissal.
During the 2019-20, when the pandemic hit and students and staff were sent home, we knew we needed to continue this powerful prayer virtually. Every day, from March to June, I led our community in praying the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet through our Youtube channel. I remember one of our parents, who was a frontline nurse working long hours in ICU telling me that it gave her great peace to pray the rosary with me as she got home after a long day’s work. Another family said they started each and every day praying the rosary during the lockdown as a way to begin their day with gratitude and prayers for our school community and our world. During summer break, I had a parent reach out to tell me how her mother had recently passed away. She asked me to pray the rosary for her soul.
It took a while, but after four years of consistently praying to Our Lady as a community and teaching our students how powerful and comforting the rosary is, it has now become a staple in our ordinary school days. Now that we are back in school, we continue to pray the rosary on our Youtube channel but I record the rosary live from a classroom filled with students! Teachers will reserve a time during the week for me to visit their classroom and we pray the rosary together. We then send the YouTube link to our parent community and all staff and teachers can play the recording during the day when the time suits them best. Our Grade two teacher Mrs. Champion plays the recording every day during lunch while her students are eating. Another teacher includes the rosary in her Religion lessons, another during her CTF Meditation and relaxation course and another teacher starts each class praying a decade of the rosary before her lesson begins. We are teaching our students about Mary and the power of the Holy Rosary.
St. Louis de Montfort tells us that “Mary is the easiest, safest and quickest way to Jesus”. When we give our prayers to her through praying the rosary, she puts them on a silver platter and delivers them to her son, Jesus. At St. Matthew School, our main goal is to be Christ-centered. Through praying the rosary, practicing the virtues of Jesus Christ, sharing the daily scripture verse written on all classroom whiteboards and our student-led morning prayers, together we are moving closer to our goal as people of God to become more and more like Jesus every day. The rosary gives our school community strength, direction, peace and graces from above.
We are advocates for Catholic Education for a number of issues close to our hearts. One, we know our children have functioned much better in a faith-based atmosphere than in one without God at the center. With a common denominator of faith, everyone operates with the base belief that God is number one, our actions are to reflect Him, so hope, faith and love become central tenants around which the schools and teachers function.
With Catholic Education there is a basic belief that each individual student is made in the image of God and is therefore treated with respect and care. They are seen as unique individuals and are valued and treasured as such. They are seen for who they are in Christ and who they can become in Christ. Students are encouraged to live out Christian principles and values in every aspect of their lives.
When our daughter started at Christ the King School in Leduc, Alberta, she was greeted by each student in her class with a handshake, welcomed and felt included right away. This greatly reduced her anxiety of starting at a new school in grade 8; she had just moved from another great Catholic school in her hometown.
We highly value the dedication to excellence of the staff and administration at Christ the King in academics and life skill development. We know, and have, complete confidence that our daughters have been, and are, the beneficiaries of that excellence. Personally, as parents, we have been valued and invited to participate in the Christ the King community and have had the privilege of being active participants in our girls' education and extra-curricular activities.
Shannon and Lynnette Whitehouse
It was 2012. My then-girlfriend, Chelsea, had completed her BEd and had taught part-time for a year in Saskatoon. A full-time position there proved precarious, following a teachers’ strike and cutbacks. Although she loved the Catholic Saskatchewan school system, she was discerning a move to greener pastures.
I was working for the summer before entering the Ed program in my 4th year at the UBC campus in Kelowna BC, where I grew up. Having travelled to Alberta for work before school started again, I was living in a camp about 500 km drive north of Edmonton.
In June, we started a 30-day novena to St. Joseph, over the phone, to discern Chelsea’s future career path. I was most excited about her application to teach at my old elementary school in Kelowna. A move there would end the long-distance factor in our relationship and would potentially see us teaching in the same diocese if I were to get hired at my secondary school, Immaculata Regional High, after convocation.
The prayer was beautiful, but the conditions were not, at least not on my end of the call. The cell reception so close to the Northwest Territories was abysmal and forced me to walk to the top of a nearby hill, which didn’t stop the mosquitoes from tracking me down. Sometimes Chelsea would lead, other times it was me, reading the prayer on my blackberry screen between swats at mossies and checking to see if the call had been dropped. This was anything but a “When Harry Met Sally” type of romantic scene on the dusty bi-centennial highway to Greater Slave Lake; more like a real game of telephone that mostly left us wondering what words the other had just prayed.
“We must believe that the life of St. Joseph - ”
“Pray for us.”
“- Not finished – spent in the presence of Jesus and Mary – “
“Pray for us.”
“Almost done – was a continual prayer – “
“Lord hear our prayer.”
“Oh for – Abounding in acts of faith…”
And so it went for 30 days. St. Joseph must not have minded the static, because on the day following the novena, day 31, Chelsea received a call requesting her to do a Skype interview for the 5/6 split position in Kelowna, at St. Joseph Elementary. We were elated and thankful to God for his faithfulness through the intercession of St. Joseph.
Chelsea was hired to work in the much sought-after Okanagan Valley and moved from Saskatoon the next month. We were engaged that November and married by the following August. We did end up teaching in the same diocese for a year before welcoming our daughter Hannah. Early on in our relationship, Chelsea had always remained aloof about our future, leaving the distance between us to be closed, or not, by the providence of God. St. Joseph continues to be a model for this docility in our household and we have returned to that novena on recent occasions, most notably when I applied to Calgary Catholic in 2016. His influence in our lives is real and testifies to the goodness of God that cannot fail.
Immediate and drastic changes took place the spring and summer of 1999. I gave up my part-time job, sold our acreage and relocated to Wetaskiwin, Alberta, in September. I prayed to God to please help me find a new purpose for my extra time and energy.
A thought emerged to help grade-ones learn how to read! I recalled how difficult my grade one experience was when I could not speak English. I remembered the shame and humiliation I felt when I was strapped because I could not read. I thought through my new-found inspiration. Later that day, we were in the principal’s office of Sacred Heart School and I expressed my desire. The principal, Mr. Simms, replied, “I could use 25 more like you.” One week later in the school year of 1999-2000, I embarked on my mission!
Now, I’m well into my 18th continuous year in the grade one class of Mrs Zoria Verhegge, who is a caring, talented, and highly professional teacher.
Let me share my one-hour daily routine, starting with checking in at the office. Next, I’m welcomed by the teacher(s) and students as Grandma Rose. After singing Oh Canada and partaking in daily prayers, Mrs V. would update me on any current information. Each day, I work with two students, so I take the next two pupils on the roster one at a time. I spend about 20 minutes with each on a one-to-one basis. Enroute to our ‘room’, we pass a bank of lockers displaying the even numbers. I cover the numbers, and the child counts by 2 to 100. Once at our desk, we open our word work to show the ten new spelling words. The child will read as best they can. We then talk about each word, use it in a sentence, and print them on a whiteboard. Next, the words are covered and erased if spelt correctly by the student. They are delighted when the board is totally cleared. Lastly, the words are neatly printed in their workbook. This child is praised for their efforts and receives a sticker. By mid-January, several pupils are able to make simple sentences that are kept in a separate scribbler.
Back in the classroom, Mrs V. often asks me random questions, reflecting on my experience as a mother and grandmother. These questions contribute to classroom discussions. My presence is helpful in another aspect because some children don’t have a “grandmother” figure in their lives. Then…times up! I bid them goodbye for another day. I check out, and as I walk to the exit, I thank God for such a safe and caring Catholic school, where I have the privilege of helping some children learn to read.
I continue to volunteer with a vested interest because the more I pour into this service, the more healing I receive for my personal juvenile trauma. Truly a win-win situation.
Christmas time is such a beautiful time. I think of Mary often and wonder about the night she gave birth to Jesus. Did she look at him with awe? Did she stare at his button nose? Did she tickle his little toes? Did she put one finger in his little hand as his fingers wrapped around hers? Did she rub his hair and hold him tight? Did she cry? Did she say out loud, “This is my boy!”?
I am so blessed to be a mom of four beautiful kids. With each one I remember just staring at them through the night in awe of God and his blessings. Thinking that Mary was a mother just like me puts the very first Christmas in such a different light. Do we consider the anticipation that Mary and Joseph felt while waiting for the birth of Jesus? And the joy they experienced when he was born! As a parent, I know that this waiting time was very special.
A book that I read to my Kindergarten students is Little One, We Knew You’d Come, by Sally-Lloyd Jones. I invite the children to bring a baby picture to class and encourage parents to have a conversation with their child about the anticipation they felt as they waited for their child to arrive.
Do we take the time and look at the children we teach as the blessing that they are?
My sister (a doctor) just told me about a funeral she attended recently, for an eight-year-old girl. Fifteen hundred people were there. She loved school so much that she came hooked up to an oxygen tank to help her breathe. The principal moved his desk outside the teacher’s door in case the little girl needed help. Her parents spent the days at the school reading books and newspapers while their daughter was in class. Any moment could be her last. Everyone waited. Just like her parents had waited for nine months for her to be born – although this waiting was going to end with a goodbye. She went to school Friday, blueish because her lungs were failing. Her dying wish was to go to school. She would never miss the Remembrance Day Assembly. She LOVED school. She died two days later.
Staff and families did not know that Friday would be their last day with this eight-year-old girl. The principal was asked to give the eulogy at the funeral. Everyone in the school was there. She loved stuffies, and her parents brought every stuffy she owned. When the children came in the church, they were offered a stuffy to cuddle. One last act of love… to love the things she loved most!
This Christmas, let us be mindful of the impact and privilege we have to be a teacher or work in a school. We play such an important role in bringing joy to the families of the students we teach. Families send their precious little ones (or big ones) to us daily to love, teach, support, help and nurture. Each child is a gift. God’s gift. Our mission is to look into the eyes of every child we teach and see the face of God. It is a blessing to be a teacher, a coach, a support worker, an administrator and custodial staff. We all have an opportunity to celebrate the life of a child.
If you have ever wondered how Catholic Education is impacting students’ lives, the Lakeland Catholic School Division annual Girls’ Retreat is a great example of how this is taking place in our communities.
Fifty girls in grades 5-12 participated in the sixth annual all girls retreat on January 31, 2020. Students arrived at École Notre Dame High School in Bonnyville at 6:00 pm on Friday and stayed until noon the following day.
We are so proud of our Youth Liturgical Leadership team who led all of the small groups, activities and worship. Organizers engaged the girls in a number of faith-based reflective and group activities designed to bring them closer. During the retreat, girls participated in an obstacle course teaching them that they can overcome their struggles by reaching out to God, others and their family. Using their strength, and the strengths of those around them; they can overcome the challenges they face and then, with their experience, help others in the future. Grade 12 student Keanna Reid gave an inspiring talk about the impact faith has on this aspect of her life and the importance of friendships.
Written by Amanda Wildman, Lakeland Catholic School District
Photos submitted by Amanda Wildman.
Catholic Education touches the hearts and souls of those we serve and teaches in ways we often don’t get an opportunity to see. I’m blessed; I have seen the impact!
My teaching career started in grade one, my dream grade. I wanted my students to experience what I had when I started school - God’s great love. My own early Catholic education had fixed this on my heart and now God gave me a chance to share. It was a fun year. As a math/science project we made rosaries. Making a rosary is a great way to teach patterning, counting to 50, grouping by 10, colors and most importantly prayer.
It was a joyous project. The rosaries were made with bright wooden beads and sparkly glitter-glue popsicle stick crosses. They took over a month to make. It was great!
I’m now working in a very different capacity for our school division and my office space is upstairs in our local high school. I often run into kids that I’ve taught as I am walking to and from my office. One day, on my way to my office, I heard a student (very loudly) leave a classroom that I had just walked by. I turned around and recognized them. They weren’t happy. They look up at me and stopped in their tracks.
I wondered what I should say as there clearly was a conflict. Before I had a chance to say anything, they looked at me and said, “You’re my grade one teacher. We made that beaded thing that we prayed with all the time.” I was shocked. I hadn’t thought of the rosary project in years. I answered yes and this student told me they still had theirs. I was even more shocked. Of all the things that could have been said or done at that moment, we talked about the rosary! What power the rosary holds.
I can’t tell you how it went between the student and the teacher as they turned and went back into the room. What I can tell you is that the power of the rosary changed the outcome. Our Catholic schools change outcomes for students at the least expected times and for years beyond the moment they are in our care.
This encounter gave me an idea for our local elementary school. We are fortunate to have Missionary of Charity sisters in our town. They love working with children and they love the rosary! For the past three years they have been coming into our elementary school each October to make rosaries. They spend a morning making rosaries and praying with the students. One of the sisters told me how during the summer when they were walking in a nearby community, one of the children they saw said to them, “Hey aren’t you the rosary Sisters?” She smiled as she told me this story and laughed; “The rosary Sisters”! How beautiful that our Catholic schools teach this life changing prayer to our students.
Submitted by Cynthia Martin, St. Paul Education Catholic Education Coordinator
Photo submitted by Cynthia Martin
To celebrate a nativity is to celebrate the birth of someone or something new. September 8 is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, also known as her birthday. It was back on September 8, 1995 that Clear Water Academy, a private, Catholic school, first opened its doors in Calgary to a mission that would form Christian leaders for the transformation of society.
On September 8, 2020, Clear Water Academy celebrated its 25th Anniversary since its foundation on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, Patroness of our school, and the opening of a brand-new Elementary school building dedicated to and called St. Thomas More Hall – a nativity of its own kind.
With hopeful anticipation we watched our new building come to completion over the summer months. St. Thomas More Hall is beautiful; a proper nod to the excellence that takes place within its walls. In addition to our peaceful new chapel, colourful library, Atrium, and outdoor learning areas, it has large classrooms that easily house our small class sizes, and are outfitted with sinks for optimal handwashing, making physical distancing and other safety protocols much more achievable.
Just two days after the Alberta Government announced the cancellation of in-person classes in early March of 2020, faculty at Clear Water Academy pivoted to CWA Interim Home Learning and witnessed the resilience of our entire community over the months of an uncharted learning environment. Our teachers sent home work packages and held classes over Google Meet, and provided hours of one-on-one support over Zoom. Our morning intercom announcements took the form of videos, and our students worked in new ways to stay engaged in their learning. It was a proud display of the tenacity and the unity of parents and faculty working together for the normalcy of a school routine for our students despite the daily-changing news updates, fears, uncertainties, disappointments in cancelled plans, and threatening despair we were all, in our humanity, experiencing at the time.
We believe that these victories in the practical elements of education were the fruits of our Intellectual, Spiritual, Human, and Apostolic educational model. Since God has given and blessed our mission and since we have, by grace, echoed Mary’s “yes” to fulfill the call, when fear tempted us to panic, our faith reminded us to hope and to persevere. It urged us to be thankful, even, for such a clear return to the heart of trust that comes from knowing that we have a Saviour in Jesus when nothing else seems as it should be.
The long-awaited celebration of our 25th anniversary is of unrepeatable significance as we welcomed our students back to campus. What joy we experienced - with masks, washed hands, and physical distance - to see our students and parents again! It’s safe to say that it has required “all sanitized hands on deck” to implement our School Re-entry Plan that has been prepared for the safety of our faculty, students, families, and greater community.
We are grateful to our faculty for their dedication to the mission they’ve been called to - and to our parents for their trust and partnership with us in the ongoing education and formation of their children. And finally, we are grateful that Jesus resides within our school chapels and that He is known more and more by our faculty, families, and students in every heartfelt prayer, learning activity, kind encounter, and friendly encouragement that make up our days.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers