There were no Catholic schools in the farm town where I grew up. So, at our mission parish, the priest would travel to another town to bring religious sisters to teach catechism on Saturday mornings.
Although I later attended a Catholic university, I wasn’t convinced about Catholic grade and high schools. Why? Perhaps they seemed a bit elitist, and maybe not diverse enough. I wanted my children to associate with people from a variety of religious backgrounds, as I had done. So when it was time to send my oldest to kindergarten in our Alaskan home, I visited the local public school to observe the teacher.
It was one of those pivotal experiences that changed everything. My luck was that the school had only one kindergarten teacher. She was nearing retirement and clearly wearing out. It was obvious that her attention was consumed by rambunctious little boys, not the quiet girls, like my firstborn. Plus, the room was windowless, not good news in an already dark Alaskan winter.
At a party, I met a public school teacher who told me the best kindergarten teacher in town taught at our Catholic school. Go there, she said, and I could always transfer out for first grade. So I paid a visit, and along with a wonderful teacher came a classroom surrounded on two sides with windows that framed the rising sun on frosty mornings.
I was sold, but my husband and daughter were off visiting relatives. How would I explain my sudden decision to send our daughter to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School instead of the neighborhood school? When my 5-year-old rushed to me upon her return, the first thing she wanted to show me was something Grandma’s neighbor had given her: a beautiful medal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Sometimes you just have to pay attention.
Fourteen years later, the last of our three children graduated from that little Catholic school, and I emerged a total advocate of Catholic education. I know there are still people whose motivations include a snobbish sense of elitism, as if “private” education carries a certain cache.
I also think it’s sad when people choose Catholic schools because they are fleeing from poor public schools. We should all support excellent public education, a bedrock of our civil society.
So why choose Catholic? I loved that my children were present before a crucifix each moment of the day, and that God could be mentioned and called on in each classroom. I loved that the liturgical seasons were observed, that during Advent the children would gather each morning to sing and light the Advent candle, that feast days were observed and explained, that my children learned the depth of their Catholic faith.
I loved that their friends came from families that shared our common values and a shared sacramental life. I loved that, while not always perfect or complete, the school complemented its deep commitment to charity with a determination to look at the broader questions of social justice from a Catholic perspective.
I loved that in a society growing increasingly more secular, my children were bathed in the sacred, and that when a school family was suffering, we not only showered them with support and food, but with prayer. I loved the growing diversity of the school, and the way kindness and respect toward others became a daily habit. I loved the immersion in faith.
National Catholic Schools Week runs Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 this year. We owe Catholic education for educating generations of leaders, and we should support their continuing vitality.