January 29, 2021

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Catholic education provides a life-changing foundation for many people in the archdiocese

The connection of the Shagley family to St. Patrick School in Terre Haute runs deep, influencing the lives of parents Richard and Alice and their four children. Here, the family members come together for a photo on the school grounds: Pictured are, Richard, left, George, William, Harriet, Eleanor and Alice Shagley. (Submitted photo)

The connection of the Shagley family to St. Patrick School in Terre Haute runs deep, influencing the lives of parents Richard and Alice and their four children. Here, the family members come together for a photo on the school grounds: Pictured are, Richard, left, George, William, Harriet, Eleanor and Alice Shagley. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: The Criterion invited Catholics across the archdiocese to share how their Catholic education has had an impact on their lives. Here are some of their stories.)

By John Shaughnessy

The slogan for his children’s Catholic school represents everything that Richard Shagley wants for them:

“Building Saints and Scholars.”

That slogan at St. Patrick School in Terre Haute also reminds Shagley of the impact that people at that school tried to have on him when he was a student there.

“I don’t know if that was their slogan then, but it’s what they were doing when I was there,” the 46-year-old father of four says. “It wasn’t a big school, but there were good kids, a good education and good people around you who wanted you to succeed. And it wasn’t just the teachers and administrators. It was the parents as well.

“As a child, I didn’t see that, but that’s what my wife Alice and I want for our children—a good education provided by people who care about you. I’m very grateful that our kids are getting that start in life.”

Shagley also appreciates the foundation of faith that the school has provided for him and their children: George, Eleanor, William and Harriet.

“You get that early foundation—all the teachings about treating each other like you would want to be treated,” he says. “I’ve noticed my oldest child [16-year-old George] doesn’t resist going to church. He still sees the value. I’d like to say it’s what he sees in his parents, but I’d be foolish to think it wasn’t St. Patrick School, too. I’m thankful that they get that element of faith throughout the day.”

He’s also thankful for the influence that Father Daniel Bedel, the pastor of St. Patrick Parish, has on the school children.

“We’re fortunate that our kids have Father Dan. He’s a terrific priest. I’ve been to the children’s Mass and saw his magic. I credit my increased participation in the Church to him. I’m on the parish council because of him.”

A lawyer, Shagley also credits his parents for giving him the gift of a Catholic education, a gift he and his wife share with their children, too.

“Growing up Catholic, I learned about giving back. I’m lucky in my job that I’m able to give back to our [parish] Church. I got a lot of that from my father, Rick Shagley, who is also an attorney. I’ve seen the way he gives back and helps the community. I hope I can instill that in our children.”

‘We became Catholic as a result of their kindness’

One of the worst times of JoAnn Johnson’s life led to one of the best life-changing moments for her and her children.

“I got married when I was almost 16,” recalls Johnson, who grew up as a Baptist. “My husband and I weren’t in love. We had 12 children in our marriage. My life was hard. My husband had an alcohol problem and didn’t provide the needed food or rent for a place to stay.

“I broke my ankle when my 11th child was born. I had to stay in the hospital from January to May. I didn’t know what was happening at home. One Sunday, two ladies came to the hospital passing out Communion and I was crying so hard, one lady came to my bedside and asked what was wrong. I told her the whole story.”

The two women were members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

“They told me not to worry and that someone would be at my house Monday to take care of my children and to clean my house. They did this for over a month. We became Catholic as a result of their kindness.”

Living on the city’s south side, Johnson found a faith home at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis. Her 12 children found a home at the parish school, which is now closed.

“They were very good people,” says Johnson who is 92 now. “My children never wanted for anything when we became Catholic. I can’t tell how much their kindness meant to me and my family.

I hope this gives you an idea of what I have been through, and the gratitude I have for the Catholic Church when I needed someone the most.”

‘I fell in love’

For Benedictine Sister Mary Luke Jones, her first year of Catholic education led to a love that has guided her life ever since.

“When I was 6 years old, I went to the first grade at St. Ambrose School in Seymour,” she says. “Something happened to me there that has made all the difference in my life. I fell in love. The object of my affection was my teacher. Her name was Sister Mary Hubert. She was a Benedictine sister.

“That love affair has lasted to this very day. The sisters who taught me were beautiful, kind and caring. I thought in the hierarchy of things, God was first and then there was them. Obviously since I have been a Benedictine for over 50 years, their impact on me was great. Even at age 6, I knew they possessed something that I wanted.”

Her eight years of Catholic education also led to another deep pursuit of her life.

“St. Ambrose prepared me for life, but also for the afterlife,” says Sister Mary Luke, a member of the Benedictine community of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove.

“I learned all the basic subjects, but also the importance of caring for others and the importance of honesty and hard work. We loved it when sister rolled up the sleeves of her long habit to wash desks since we got a glimpse of something other than her face and hands.

“I can trace a direct line from my religious vocation to sitting in that first-grade classroom. My eight years at

St. Ambrose were the bedrock of my life. The romance endures!”

Mom’s victory is a win for her sons, too

When Bert Leffel considers the way he met his wife and his lifelong friends, he’s ever thankful that his mother cast the deciding vote in his parents’ decision to send him and his two brothers to Catholic schools for their education.

Leffel’s dad had attended a Catholic school as a child, but the cost of a Catholic education and the quality of public schools in the family’s Indianapolis neighborhood made him think about sending his sons to the less-costly option. At the same time, Leffel’s mother, a product of public schools, saw how a Catholic school’s emphasis on faith, family values and education had strongly influenced her husband’s life.

“Long story short, Mom won,” Leffel recalls. He has no doubt that he and his brothers won, too.

“Catholic education has been a life-changing experience for my children, family and myself,” Leffel says, referring to his education at St. Pius X School and Cathedral High School, both in Indianapolis.

“I played baseball, basketball and football in grade school, and my friends were all there with me. I’m 42, and this group of teammates and classmates are still my closest friends. Friendship was at the heart of my school years and my main reason for sending my children to St. Pius to follow in my footsteps.”

For Leffel, what makes those friendships so deep is the connection of faith.

“At the core of our friendships was Jesus and God. We were altar boys, and we attended Mass regularly all of my childhood. St. Pius as a church and an institution became my dear friend as well. Every priest we were fortunate to come into contact with was a blessing and a true friend. Father Jim Farrell has helped my family through our hardest times. We love him.”

Catholic schools also led Leffel to the love of his life. He first met his wife Tiffani, a graduate of

St. Matthew the Apostle School in Indianapolis, at a Catholic Youth Organization dance. They continued to date during their time together at Cathedral.

“Friendship and family are the impact the Catholic school system has played in my life,” he says. “It is one of the most important and treasured parts of my life. If anyone is on the ledge, like my dad once was, trust in knowing that once you are a part of this wonderful world it will truly change your life and your loved ones’ lives for the better.”

A prescription for a long, happy life

Joanne McKinley believes she has the prescription for anyone who wants to live a long, happy life.

“I’m 88 years old, and I attribute my good, happy life to my good, sound Catholic education,” says McKinley, a member of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg.

“For eight years, I was taught by the wonderful Franciscan nuns from Oldenburg. They taught me so much about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We were taught how to dress and act appropriately for church, how to be respectful to our elders and how to understand that the Ten Commandments gave us the rules that God wants us to live by. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if everyone did live accordingly?”

McKinley learned those lessons while she was a student at the former St. Mary School in New Albany, the school where a classmate of hers, Thomas, later became her husband of nearly 67 years, leading to a family of six children, 19 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

Her thoughts of her Catholic education also take her back to another defining moment in her life—her first Communion.

“My first Communion was one of the happiest moments of my life. Sister Mary Omer, my first Communion instructor, had a huge influence on my life. We were taught about loving God, understanding, appreciating and participating in Mass, and having a deep love for the Blessed Sacrament.”

The importance of community

Carol Wethington Divine is grateful for the gift her father gave her as a child.

“I often heard my father boast about the fact that he had been able to send one of his children all of the way through school via Catholic schools. He imparted to me the importance of the community that only Catholic education could provide.”

Divine found that sense of community from the time she started her education in Indianapolis at the former Holy Trinity School in 1956 through her graduation from Marian University in 1973, with four years at Cardinal Ritter High School included.

That focus on community then guided her in her 46 years as a teacher before she retired recently. She had taught at Cardinal Ritter, Bishop Chatard and Providence Cristo Rey high schools in Indianapolis.

“It all started in kindergarten,” she says. “I was beginning my journey learning that I not only had my strong community of family, but also was learning a new and wonderful community of Catholic education. My identity was soon developing: charity toward all, an open heart, service to my community, and acceptance of any person I would meet.”

When she was in the first grade at Holy Trinity School, Divine told her mother that she wanted to be a teacher.

“I never wavered from that goal, which was consistently reinforced each year because of the loving education I received from the Sisters of St. Francis.

“Catholic education teaches one to love others. St. Mother Theodore Guérin said it well, ‘Love the children first, and then teach them.’ Even in the most trying situations I encountered in teaching, I would always stop and reflect on her words.”

As parents, Divine and her husband made sure their daughter Katie received a Catholic education at St. Pius X School and Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis.

“We never regretted that decision.”

Special memories, a lasting influence

One special memory stands out to Cecelia Kiley from her Catholic education at the former Holy Trinity School, the former St. Mary Academy and Marian University, all in Indianapolis.

“One of the greatest school memories that endeared me to the Catholic faith was the annual May crowning,” she says. “It was a royal occasion which took place outdoors on a shrine erected for Mary. At 7 p.m. sharp, bells began ringing, classes lined up along the street, and eighth-grade servers led the procession around the neighborhood while May hymns were sung accompanied by the school band.

“Neighbors lined the streets to watch the spectacle and the eighth-grade girl slowly marched up to the shrine and placed the crown atop the Virgin’s head. In all my years, I have never witnessed a more beautiful school crowning.”

Kiley also has special memories of her eighth-grade teacher.

“Sister Mary Sharon had the greatest influence on my faith journey. Sister could be seen playing four-square with the kids out on the playground and many times she won. In me, she created a desire to study harder and to enjoy praying. A devotion to Mary that lingers today began in the eighth grade because of her.”

The influence of a Catholic education has continued through the years for Kiley, now a member of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“Going into high school and college, I took with me the moral groundwork put down throughout my grade school years: respect for authority, morality between the sexes, education about our Catholic beginnings, frequent reception of the sacraments, and friends who shared the same faith.

“The love I have today for our Catholic faith can definitely be attributed to having a Catholic education in all three levels.” †


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