Many great things grow from humble beginnings. Perhaps Isaiah was referring to this when he said that a “shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse (Is 11:1).”
A powerful example of this comes in the person of the first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821). We now refer to her as “Mother Seton” because she was the foundress of a religious society, the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph. Before she died, Mother Seton’s group grew from a handful of Sisters to 20 different groups who had spread from Maryland to other areas in the United States as well as South America and Europe.
This amazing growth was due to her insight that education was the key for people to grow, not only in their understanding of the Catholic faith but also to climb out of poverty and to flourish in society. Her inspiration helped many families who had immigrated here and elsewhere to learn about life while weaving a constant thread of faith into the day.
Shortly after Mother Seton’s death, the baton was picked up by a young priest named John Neumann, now St. John Neumann. Himself an immigrant from Bohemia, he came to this country in 1836. He was aware of Mother Seton’s influence and made the connection himself when he was named the bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. He opened some 80 schools for the education of children in his diocese, lifting many Americans to a better way of life by mixing knowledge of this world with the hope and truth of the gospel.
This is Catholic Schools Week in our area. It is a time to celebrate a great legacy and encourage our young families to consider a Catholic education.
Our schools may not have waves of immigrants to “American-ize.” We may not have as many priests and sisters to staff them. But they remain strong beacons of light, offering quality education, an atmosphere of faith and discipline, and, as additional benefits, many blessings for the community at large.
Where would the town of Greenville be, for example, without multiple generations of people who grew together as students and then supporters of St. Michael Church and St. Michael School?
Here in the valley, the shape of Catholic education is changing. A united system, the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools, offers every Catholic, and every person, a faith-based education in the name of every Catholic parish of our area. There are fewer students. There is greater financial burden. But those who take advantage of this opportunity, Catholics as well as people from other faith traditions, continue a great legacy of preparedness for the future through knowledge, discipline and values. In our disposable culture, faith-based education offers a much-needed alternative perspective on life.
Today there is great competition for Catholic schools because many of our public school districts offer quality education and additional amenities through already-assessed tax dollars and great effort as well. Those who choose Catholic education must pay additional tuition in support of their dedication. They also count on the heavy subsidies of every Catholic parish.
This means that every Catholic in our area becomes a supporter of Catholic education by their parish offering. This has always been the case in our diocese, known for its strong backing of Catholic schools.
We all do this for a simple reason. We believe that the ability to talk about faith in the classroom is important. How else except with our belief that God is the author of all would we discuss science? History? Literature? The arts? We believe that God wants us to learn about His world so that we can make our contribution, building up God’s kingdom. This is a unique perspective that permeates the entire curriculum. Of course there are opportunities to pray, to do service projects in the name of the gospel, and to live out our commitment in faith.
Are any of us perfect at this? No, we are not quite the saints that Mother Seton and Bishop Neumann were. But this great tradition helps us aim for that. Students, parents, faculties and staffs directly participate in the Catholic schools in our area, but all of us benefit from the presence of these unique institutions of learning. Buds are still blossoming from the shoots that sprout from the stump.
Rev. Jeffery J. Noble is pastor of Church of Notre Dame, Hermitage.