January 29, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Catholic schools hand on the rich heritage of our ancestors

We have good reason to celebrate our Catholic schools this week.

As we celebrate, it is noteworthy that our parish Catholic schools and the high school systems are a hallmark of the Catholic Church in the United States from the earliest years of our country.

The founding of our Catholic school “system” had very much to do with the fact that we were an immigrant Church. It also had to do with maintaining our Catholic faith and culture in a predominantly Protestant national culture.

Nor were the circumstances of the day friendly to our ancestors. If the Catholic faith was to be passed on to succeeding generations, they decided that it was necessary to have their own schools in which the faith and our Catholic tradition could be taught to their children.

Traces of that aspect of our Catholic heritage marked my own early years of elementary education. I am pretty sure that is a significant source of my strong convictions about our Catholic schools.

In Dubois County, there still existed one-room, eight-grade schools during my early childhood. We called them “school houses.”

In fact, outside of Jasper, there had been a Buechlein School near my Grandpa Buechlein’s farm. About a mile from my childhood home, there was the Boeckelman School. The names of the schools tell of their German immigrant origin.

My Mom’s brother, Uncle Adam, taught at the Boeckelman School, and there I spent the first two years of grade school. It was kind of like a home school. Most of us, 25 or so, were cousins, and all of us were Catholic.

An old iron coal stove heated the one room. There was a “recitation bench” at the front of the room where, grade by grade, we would receive and recite the lesson of the day while the other grades worked at their desks or practiced writing on the blackboard.

On Saturday mornings, we would go to St. Joseph School in Jasper to receive our religious education from the Sisters of Providence. I was prepared for first Communion and the sacrament of confirmation on those Saturday mornings.

Our family regularly went to St. Joe’s for confession monthly on a Saturday afternoon. That’s when the pastor, Msgr. Leonard Wernsing, repeatedly nudged Mom and Dad to transfer my brother Charlie and me to St. Joseph School. I was in the third grade; Charlie was in seventh. And that’s where our education came more extensively under the direction and influence of the Sisters of Providence.

St. Joseph School in Jasper was the first school founded by St. Theodora Guérin—another immigrant connection. At the time of my elementary education, some 20 Sisters of Providence were teaching at St. Joe’s. Interestingly, at that time, it was also a public school.

Besides receiving an excellent academic education, we also received a solid grounding in our Catholic faith, tradition and culture. I would also add that my vocation to the priesthood found its roots in the St. Joe’s environment—in addition to my family, of course.

In many ways, my generation of Catholics still experienced somewhat of an immigrant connection in our elementary education. As I look back, I value that historical connection.

These days, it is not easy to recognize the immigrant context that gave rise to a truly prominent Catholic education system. Many developments account for the loss of that connection, the passing of time and the change in our national culture being major ones. We also regret the loss of the influence of the religious sisters and brothers as teachers.

We owe an enormous debt of thanks to those religious who provided so many of us with a superb education and religious formation. They played a momentous role in the historical development of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Now it is only proper to express our gratitude to the lay women and men who have stepped up to take over the important role of teachers and administrators in our Catholic schools. They are doing an excellent job, especially in the face of the challenges of our secular culture.

I have a strong sense of their importance from personal experience. I already mentioned that my Uncle Adam was a lay teacher. My Mom was the first lay teacher in my home Holy Family Parish in Jasper in the late 1950s.

Another aunt also succeeded teaching religious sisters in Dubois County.

Our country’s culture is not friendly to some very important values and teachings of our Catholic faith and tradition. And so our Catholic schools continue to be important for handing on the rich heritage we received from our ancestors in the faith.

We pray gratefully for our ancestors and all who generously keep the grand tradition of our Catholic schools flourishing. †

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