Are they worth it?
That’s the looming question we often hear about our Catholic schools, elementary and secondary.
Even many fans of our schools, who support and promote them, are at times tempted to sigh and wonder, “Yes, we know they educate more effectively, catechize better, and form character well, but . . . given their heavy financial weight, are they worth it?”
Last Friday I spent a good chunk of the day at one of our stellar Catholic secondary schools, Kennedy Catholic High in Somers, Westchester County.
As I drove in, I admired the magnificent campus, with a new football field described as the best in the area. I would later hear of their competitive baseball, track, basketball, football, and hockey teams. The building itself has won architectural awards for its eco-friendliness, and the school rightly boasts that it was dedicated by none other than Jacqueline Kennedy, only a few years after her husband’s assassination, and Cardinal Francis Spellman.
At the door to greet me was the chair of the board of the school, Mr. Joseph Costello, his wife, and devoted members of the board. Each of our archdiocesan high schools (there are other private Catholic high schools, mostly governed by religious orders, which, while wonderfully Catholic, are not considered “archdiocesan”), is now juridically governed not by the archdiocese, but by independent boards, in line with the principle of subsidiarity, so revered in Catholic social thought, that the “closer to home” the administration of any institution is, the better it is.
Mr. Costello, and the school’s respected principal, Father Mark Vaillancourt, told me good news: the freshman class was the largest in years, and the enrollment for the entire school was up. The school had finished last year financially in the black, because of creative marketing, strong board leadership, vigorous parental involvement, and support from the parish priests of the area, most of whom were all there for the visit.
Then into the door. (No security detectors or guards, by the way). There to greet me were smiling, courteous student leaders, obviously excited about their school, all so spiffy, boys in dress shirt and tie, girls in school uniform.
And there was another Person there: Jesus, the Teacher. There was His prominent picture, dominating the entrance foyer, with the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in Thee” underneath; there He was on His cross; there He was as an infant in the arms of His blessed Mother, whose statue was prominent; there He was, really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, in the chapel in the entrance foyer, where Mass is offered daily by Father Mark Vaillancourt or the newly appointed Chaplain, Father Matthew Newcomb, (If I can find two other priests named “John” and “Luke” to go there, I’ll send them!) who described for me the retreat program, opportunities for apostolic service projects, and ample availability of the sacrament of penance for the nearly six-hundred students.
On to many of the classrooms. Father Mark Vaillancourt told me of the school’s soaring SAT scores, and that every graduating senior last year went on to college, with the class earning over $12,000,000 in scholarships. No wonder Kennedy has such a high academic reputation! The classrooms were clean, bright, technologically up-to-date, with teachers eager to tell me of their courses, and students who were quiet, orderly, and rose to their feet out of respect when we entered. The library and labs looked state-of-the-art.
One of the rooms I entered was in the midst of religious class. There on the board were words like “monotheism,” “the one true God of Abraham,” “Judaism, Christianity, Islam,” “all God’s children,” lessons which sure seemed timely and welcome today. The Bible, the Catechism, the crucifix, the American flag were prominent.
Sister Mary Christopher, a Sister of the Divine Compassion, the religious order which has been a cherished part of this school from the start, told me how each day began with a communal prayer for the entire school.
I was fascinated by the demanding science programs, math classes, (two areas not my favorite), and showed more interest, I must admit, in the history syllabus, writing and grammar courses, and programs of fine arts and drama. A solid, classical education!
Then onto Mass: the students read, sang, and prayed. Their attentiveness and reverence, the warmth of their welcome, were inspirational! At the conclusion of the Mass, the students asked me to bless the football for next day’s opening game (Kennedy won, by the way!) and gave me a team jacket (which I wore Sunday when I blessed the new Giants Stadium — and they won, too!).
Afterwards I visited with the board, faculty, parents, and — very enjoyably — a group of representative students. Their pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm for Kennedy Catholic High School was contagious!
One of them told me that, earlier, there had been trouble with — pardon me for bringing up a delicate topic — the plant’s septic tank! Father Mark Vaillancourt, you need to know, happens to have his doctorate in engineering. So, down he goes, in the “bowels” of the tank, to fix the problem! Talk about dedication!
For him — and, so clearly, for his faculty, parents, brother priests, board, alumni, and, most importantly, for his students — there’s only one answer to the question, “Are they worth it?”
A ringing yes!