January 28, 2022

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Principals learn how to strengthen the unique mission and faith-filled essence of Catholic schools in the archdiocese

Pam Wells, principal of St. Mary School in Rushville, assists second grader Corbin Snow, center, on Jan. 7 at the Connersville Deanery school. Second grader Chloe Ni works on a computer at right. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Pam Wells, principal of St. Mary School in Rushville, assists second grader Corbin Snow, center, on Jan. 7 at the Connersville Deanery school. Second grader Chloe Ni works on a computer at right. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

RUSHVILLE—A school is just a school, whether it’s public or religious. They all have the basic same goal in educating children. They all use the same basic means to achieve this purpose.

Father Ronald Nuzzi, a priest of the Diocese of Youngtown, Ohio, has heard this message again and again from people involved in education during his decades of ministry forming leaders of Catholic schools across the country.

But he’s convinced it’s not true, that there is a “distinctiveness in the Catholic educational tradition.”

“The Catholic school is not just a school with Catholic seasoning sprinkled over the top, or is the frosting on the cake,” Father Nuzzi said in a recent interview with The Criterion.

Instead, he proposed, a Catholic school “is first and foremost a faith community. It’s a place where the faith is lived, practiced and experienced. And the educational processes are the ways that it’s done. It’s primarily a place to come to learn and grow in the faith. All the other subjects are sort of at the disposal of that. It’s a distinctive thing.”

This alternative to the message commonly believed in education circles in the U.S. is what Father Nuzzi is sharing with principals of Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana in a series of four workshops sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools during the 2021-22 academic year titled “On the Road to Irresistibility: Selected Documents on Catholic Education.”

Father Nuzzi is a professor emeritus of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame in northern Indiana. He has developed graduate programs at three Catholic universities that train educators to be principals in Catholic schools.

Father Nuzzi hopes the four workshops he’ll lead, plus online discussion groups among parish school principals in the archdiocese that meet between the workshops, will strengthen the Catholic identity of those schools.

“I really hope that our time together will give [principals] both the language and the tools to be able to contribute to the growth of a Catholic culture and a Catholic ethos in their home parishes and schools in an ongoing way,” said Father Nuzzi. “It’s not just a project for this year.”

Pam Wells is in her first year as principal of St. Mary School in Rushville after serving for 26 years as a teacher at St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis and later at SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi School in Greenwood.

She has appreciated Father Nuzzi’s encouragement in the workshops she has attended so far.

“He’s very empowering and motivational,” Wells said. “Especially in these times that are so difficult, it gives principals a lift.”

She, in turn, knows that what she receives in the sessions with Father Nuzzi must be passed on to the staff of her school.

“If it just stops with me, it’s not going very far,” Wells said.

In his workshops, Father Nuzzi hopes to help principals understand how a Catholic school is an integral part of a parish’s mission and ministry, not just something that a faith community pays for.

“The Church doesn’t subsidize Catholic schools,” he said. “Schools are part and parcel of what the Church is. It’s beyond inaccurate. It suggests a relationship that it’s not helpful, that the Church has to subsidize schools as if they’re some kind of burden.”

Wells sees how St. Mary School is a key part of the Church in Rushville carrying out its mission of evangelization. Less than 50% of its students are Catholic. This reflects the population of Rushville, in which, historically, Catholics have been in the minority.

“You have a lot of non-Catholic children that attend Catholic schools these days,” she said. “If you can get the children to really identify with the mission of the Church that we are furthering, you’re bringing more people into the Church. That’s part of our mission.”

At the same time, she also knows that her school plays an important role in helping its Catholic students be more anchored in their faith.

“I want them to be able to leave here and continue practicing their faith and passing it on, because they don’t go to Catholic schools after here,” Wells said. “They go to public schools. So, it has to make a huge impact while they’re here.”

Part of strengthening the faith of today’s Catholic students at St. Mary is honoring the school’s traditions, which date back more than 150 years.

“It’s really important for us to go back a little bit and learn about [our history] so that we can keep it going—whether it’s the traditions or teachings,” Wells said. “It’s important for us to learn how they are incorporated into a Catholic school.” †

 

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