January 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Small parish makes big news in starting a school

Sylvia Tews, a student at Annunciation Catholic Montessori School in Brazil, prays during the religions education program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Sylvia was learning about the holy vessels of the altar that are used in Mass.  (Submitted photo)

Sylvia Tews, a student at Annunciation Catholic Montessori School in Brazil, prays during the religions education program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Sylvia was learning about the holy vessels of the altar that are used in Mass. (Submitted photo)

By Jennifer Lindberg (Special to The Criterion)

BRAZIL—A small parish community has shown that hope can outmeasure any label.

While Brazil was named the poorest town in Indiana from the United States Census Bureau, Annunciation Parish in that community took action to make a better distinction: opening a new school.

“With material poverty, there tends to be more drugs, crime, etcetera,” said Father John Hollowell, pastor of Annunciation Parish. “A lot of people, if you knocked on their door and invited them to Mass, wouldn’t dare come. But if you say, ‘We’d like to offer a really amazing, safe, holistic, education for your child,’ people are very much interested and ready to listen.”

Annunciation Parish was listening so well that after four parish dinners in December of 2017 to solicit private funds, they received $75,000 just three months later from parishioners, alumni of the previous parish school and from friends of parishioners.

The school sparked an interest in an endeavor seeking to bring the light of Christ into some of the darkest corners through education. The new school also secured grants from The Froderman Foundation in Terre Haute and an early learning grant from the State of Indiana.

“Only the Lord could have brought all the pieces together,” said Christa Dohmen, the director of Annunciation Montessori School and the director of religious education for Annunciation Parish. “One of our goals is certainly to evangelize and bring new families with children to Annunciation Church.”

The new school, opening with a preschool for 3- to 6-year-olds, has plans to expand per archdiocesan approval each year. It can now accept The Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) vouchers that help low-income families obtain child care and has a scholarship fund, Dohmen said. As the school adds elementary grades, it will be eligible for other state vouchers.

Mary McCoy, assistant superintendent for the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, worked closely with Dohmen and Father Hollowell on plans for the school.

“We are very blessed to have [Dohmen] down there and Father Hollowell too,” McCoy said. “I am so excited to see where this goes, and I hope they can sustain it.”

McCoy said that it is in the poorest areas that Catholic education sees a big impact. She was impressed with the vision that the school would evangelize Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the community.

“How beautiful,” McCoy said. “We believe that we educate not because someone is [or isn’t] Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”

Dohmen first met Father Hollowell when she was studying in Rome more than 10 years ago. A former chemical engineer for Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis, Dohmen began to feel a different call, one that led to graduating with a theology degree from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and a master’s degree in Montessori Education from Loyola University Maryland before becoming principal of a Catholic Montessori school in Ohio. She was also a teacher in various Montessori schools.

Even with all these successes, Dohmen felt the Lord asking something more of her.

“The mission of a Catholic Montessori school was placed on my heart for vulnerable children in lower economic circumstances,” Dohmen said.

When she learned Father Hollowell was open to starting a new school, Dohmen felt that the cycle of poverty in Brazil and the surrounding area could be broken, and that children at the parish would be given another avenue to come closer to Jesus.

“Providing a Catholic Montessori experience to children as young as 3 years old can likely be the necessary component for a generation change in this low-income, at-risk community,” Dohmen said.

But the school is also about growing Annunciation Parish by bringing in younger families to an already aging population, Dohmen said.

The Montessori approach, developed in the early 20th century by Dr. Maria Montessori, a devout Catholic, means the child’s education uses manipulatives that are hands-on, self-paced, collaborative and joyful, Dohmen said.

Students not only learn reading, writing and math, but also self-care. They learn to prepare snacks, basic sewing and how to care for their small environment that has child-size rugs, lamps and tables.

The school also has a full-time religious education component called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that was created by Montessori. The program uses miniature items of the altar and Mass that students see at church, as well as other materials to help the child learn about the Bible and prayer. The setting is called an atrium, hearkening back to the place where, in the early days of the Church, catechumens were prepared for reception of the sacraments. For the child, the atrium is a place to help prepare them for full participation in the life of the Church, Dohmen said.

“Whether Catholic or non-Catholic, being able to live the Catholic faith daily in the atrium and providing a faith community for the family to be a part of, we are supporting and nurturing the religious need within each child,” Dohmen said.

Dr. Kristen Walton, who is not Catholic, said she is grateful that her daughter Lillian, 4, is getting “a spiritual education alongside the Montessori education.”

“We want our daughter to have the best education possible in a healthy environment,” Walton said. “In this part of Indiana, Annunciation is the only preschool we found that respects parents’ health decisions, genuinely cares about the child’s environment and provides research-based education.

“Lilly loves helping prepare her own snacks and other activities like sewing and playing the bells. Many of the activities she loves are not things we previously thought a 4-year-old capable of.”

Jeff Wools knew what a Montessori education was and wanted that for his grandson, Ian Schobee, 4. Wools, a member of Annunciation Parish, said he has seen marked improvement in his grandson during the time he has been at the school. Before, Ian was shy and didn’t speak much, Wools said.

“Now he has advanced,” he said. “He interacts with other kids a lot better, and it has all been very positive.”

Father Hollowell said opening a school is a lot of hard work, and this one has taken a lot of effort, from a major renovation project to securing funds and volunteers. He insists that the opportunity to share the faith makes all the efforts worthwhile.

“I feel like Catholic schools are such a wonderful way to bring the good news of the Gospel to the world.”

(Jennifer Lindberg is a freelance writer and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville.)

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