July 8, 2011

The spirit of the schools

First year for Catholic education director is marked by celebrations and challenges

Harry Plummer, executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese, shakes hands with Bishop Chatard High School senior Claire Gorden, a member of Immaculate Heart Parish in Indianapolis, during commencement exercises on May 22 at the school. (Submitted photo)

Harry Plummer, executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese, shakes hands with Bishop Chatard High School senior Claire Gorden, a member of Immaculate Heart Parish in Indianapolis, during commencement exercises on May 22 at the school. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

In a recent story about the state of Catholic education in the United States, The Catholic World Report noted that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is in special company among dioceses across the country.

According to the international monthly magazine, the archdiocese ranks fourth in a listing of the top 15 dioceses in the United States with the strongest culture of Catholic education. The listing ranked the dioceses with “the highest ratio of Catholic school students to overall Catholic population.”

It’s the kind of news that brings a smile to Harry Plummer, who just finished his first year as the executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese.

For Plummer, it’s been a year of professional celebrations and challenges, ranging from concerns about how the struggling economy affects Catholic school enrollment to the good news about Indiana’s school voucher program and how it could benefit many Catholic families in the archdiocese.

It’s also been a year of celebrations and challenges for Plummer personally—a year when he and his wife, Annina, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, a year when the father of eight moved his family to Indianapolis, a year when his oldest daughter will soon enter religious life.

The Criterion recently met with Plummer to talk about the state of Catholic education in the archdiocese and the event-filled past year of his life. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. What excites you about the state of Catholic education and faith formation in the archdiocese?

A. “On the school side, one of the things that is exciting is helping schools with the implementation of the new State of Indiana voucher program. It’s huge. It’s very clear we want all the schools to be involved in it, and it will be a real benefit to our schools and particularly to our Catholic families who have been unable to afford Catholic school education.

“On the faith and formation side, we have NCYC [the National Catholic Youth Conference] coming up in November in Indianapolis. We will be hosting about 25,000 youths from across the country. It’s a tremendous task, but an equally tremendous blessing. We really think this is an opportunity for our Catholic youth in the archdiocese to experience Christ in a unique community environment.

“We’re also looking at expanding our services to people with disabilities. And we’re working with our archdiocesan evangelization commission in their efforts to help parishes develop parish evangelization teams. That’s a big deal.”

Q. What are some of the challenges facing Catholic education in the archdiocese?

A. “The biggest challenge is, ‘How do you make good programs even better—whether they’re religious education, youth ministry or schools?’

“In schools, you have the challenge of helping them to learn how to make appropriate interdisciplinary links between the subjects and religious education so they better reference all learning to the Gospel message. It’s how to make the religious dimension of the Catholic schools even more vibrant than it already is.

“Funding programs continues to be a challenge—how to develop strategic planning to help schools better prepare to have a better way of obtaining resources on their own.

“Another thing we’re moving forward with on the school end is to have a catechist certification process that all teachers would be involved with. The goal is that everyone would have at least a minimal understanding of the Church’s teachings, whether it’s Catholic social teachings or the basics of Catholic theology. For some, it will be something they’ve already done, but you can always learn more. For others, particularly those who aren’t Catholic or who have never pursued this learning as adults, we think it will be a great opportunity for them.”

Q. What do you see as the value of a Catholic education in the 21st century when families have so many choices in education?

A. “It’s an old expression, but we prepare kids for life not just final exams. Plus, we help parents to form them in a manner consistent with their destiny to become saints. One of the keys is that we develop in children the ability to differentiate the good, the beautiful and the true in our culture from their opposites. We help them become confident when faced with some of the dehumanizing concerns prevalent in society.

“Because of our finances and because of our philosophy, Catholic schools are more insulated from having to get involved with trendy educational programs. We stick to the basics. We have dedicated teachers, a standard curriculum, and there’s the whole moral foundation we provide for our kids. That has proven to be a very effective approach.”

Q. What kind of impact has the struggling economy had on enrollment in schools in the archdiocese?

A. “It didn’t seem to have much impact last year on enrollment since we were only down about 1 percent across the archdiocese. However, over the past seven years, it has declined about 5.4 percent. While this is better than the national average—about 22 percent—it’s something we’re really concerned about.

“Our schools are responding to the challenge by restructuring to aggressively pursue revenue through development efforts while continuing to provide an outstanding educational experience for students. In this regard, we think opportunities such as tax scholarships—vouchers—will be helpful. It will make it possible for some families who desire a Catholic education, but haven’t been able to afford it, to enroll their children in our schools.”

Q. How do you view the future of Catholic education in the archdiocese and the United States?

A. “I’m an optimist. Like any business, Catholic schools understand they have to adjust, they have to adapt or else they are no longer going to be competitive—and people will discontinue using them. Our people in the archdiocese have really taken responsibility for their schools, and they’re open to the kind of services we can provide. I’m optimistic because of the support the archdiocese provides to the schools. At the same time, there’s a higher level of accountability on a number of levels for schools, and that’s all good.”

Q. What are some of your favorite memories from your first year in the archdiocese?

A. I enjoyed the high school graduation ceremonies. What I liked about them was the unity in the diversity. They’re all different expressions of the spirit of the schools, but they’re all united in their Catholicity.

“Another profound moment for me was the ordination of Bishop [Christopher J.] Coyne. To see that played out on the sanctuary of the Church—ever ancient, ever new—with Archbishop [Daniel M.] Buechlein laying hands on Bishop Coyne was just a moving Church experience for me.

“Another joy was the few times I was able to do school visits. My first love was serving the children. As my career moved forward more administratively, I saw less and less of the children. So any chance I get to visit the schools, I try to take it.”

Q. You were born in Indianapolis and baptized at Holy Spirit Church. Your career path in Catholic education has taken you and your family to Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana. What has it been like for you and your family to be in Indiana?

A. “For our family, it’s very much like life in the military [as far as having lived in different places]. The kids have experienced Catholic education in a diverse number of ways. So they’re used to traveling. The motivation for all of this is trying to be a single-income family in the Church world. With eight kids, you grow yourself out of being able to stay in positions you love.

“The kids are pretty good at making the adjustments. They’re involved in sports and community life here. We have four children at Our Lady of the Greenwood [School] and one at Roncalli [High School]. This move was hardest for the adolescent girl. She missed her friends. But she’s made adjustments and found new friends. We do have family in the area. My 80-year-old mother is able to visit from lower Michigan. That’s fun to have that access.”

Q. You and your wife celebrated your 25th wedding anniversary on June 14. What is the approach that guides your marriage?

A. “We have found that the path to happiness in marriage is so narrow that two can walk on it only if they become one. There’s just not a lot of place for self in running a family as large as ours. We move at the speed of light. You can only imagine the interactions of the different kids, with having six living at home regularly.

“So one of the keys we’ve found is to get away from them and have some time for ourselves. That has been the key to sanity and hopefully some movement toward sanctity. If we don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen.”

Q. You and your wife, Annina, have eight children ranging in age from 24 to 6. What approach guides the two of you in raising your children?

A. “Openness to life is a big factor in it. So are prayer and doing things together. And we’ve always lived in an area where we have a big backyard, a big outside environment for the kids.

“The lens that we look at family through is that God has provided us with a great deal to be grateful for. We make sure the kids are grateful. We’re pretty strict in regards as to right and wrong. Access to the sacraments—particularly of the holy Eucharist and reconciliation—is important, too. Staying together. Keeping close. One of the big things is intentional family time. Making family time happen. Fun.”

Q. What’s it like for you to have your 21-year-old daughter, Therese, enter religious life?

A. “It’s humbling. It’s unfair that a man my age [52] should have to go through so many new emotions. Out of obedience to me, she went a year to college even though she had been saying she wanted to go into a religious order. She came back from that year experience and told me she wanted to go into religious life. For me, the experiences of joy and loss mix. Then I see how happy she is. And it’s an honor to be able to give back to the Church for all we’ve been given.

“She will start her novitiate on July 11 with the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity order. Her life is really kind of an expression of Christ’s love for the Church. Because she’s happy, I’m OK. It’s kind of exciting.” †

About Harry Plummer

  • Position—Executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese.
  • Age—52
  • Family—Married 25 years to Annina. The couple has eight children, ranging in age from 24 to 6.
  • Parish—Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.
  • Education—Bachelor of Arts degree in education from the University of Michigan. Master of Arts degree in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Master of Arts degree in educational administration from Central Michigan University.
  • Hobbies—“Reading. Fishing. Golf, when I can. My kids and I make and shoot rockets. Rosary making. We make them for the missions. And I walk with my wife.”
  • Favorite books—“I don’t want it to sound like it’s the canned answer, but the Scriptures are my favorite book. I re-read The Lord of the Rings with my family from time to time. Another area would be Civil War biographies.”
  • Favorite movie—“My favorite movie is A Man for All Seasons. Another movie I like is On the Waterfront.”
  • Favorite activity to share with his children—“Right now, the favorite activity is playing Catch Phrase with the family. It’s just a blast. Bowling is another big family thing. And watching animated movies like Cars.”
  • Favorite subjects in school—“History, English, English literature. I was never too good with math.”
  • Best memory of school—“They’d be all related to sports. Ninth-grade football was great. Just the whole season. And the support we had in the community was very big. I lettered in soccer and tennis in high school. The biggest memory was winning first place in our division in doubles tennis my junior year.” †

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