Catholic education has been part of the Church’s ministry since Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection. “Go, therefore, and teach all nations,” Jesus instructs his disciples as he takes leave of them. The Catholic Church has taken this command quite seriously over the centuries. In hard times, parents and grandparents handed on their simple faith by the example of their own prayers and their own dedicated lives. In historic times, abbeys and universities made the Catholic faith the stuff of grand discussions and international debates. For many centuries all education was in the hands of the Church. The well-to-do could go off to scholarly academies maintained by the Catholic Church’s many religious orders. The not-so-well-to-do had to rely on heroes of the faith like St. John Baptist de la Salle who was moved by the plight of the poor who seemed so “far from salvation” both in this world or the next. LaSalle determined to put his own talents and his own fine education and family finances to work at the service of children who were “often left to themselves and badly brought up.”
LaSalle faced two challenges. He had to educate children but he also had to educate teachers. It is little known that LaSalle first had a hand in instituting a congregation of religious women, the Sister of the Child Jesus. It is of course much better known that LaSalle instituted the Brothers of the Christian Schools (FSC), the first religious congregation not composed of ordained clergy. The FSCs staff LaSalle Academy in Providence today. The education of these brothers themselves resulted in the formation of what history understands to be the first normal school. LaSalle’s insights and energy were happily duplicated throughout Catholic Europe and the plethora of religious congregations of men and women that characterized Catholic education until quite recently flourished throughout Europe and the New World. Probably most readers of the Quiet Corner today owe their faith formation to a local congregation of sisters or brothers.
The face of the Catholic Church in America altered drastically after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Parish liturgies, Biblical studies, Ecumenical efforts, diocesan and parish administration and social services encountered new and often successful opportunities. The same cannot be said for local Catholic schools. At one time sixty-five percent of the parishes in the Providence diocese maintained a Catholic school. This percentage ranked third highest on a nationwide scale. The wholesale withdrawal of religious men and women from the classroom on the local level drastically transformed the face of Catholic education in the diocese of Providence. Currently there are thirty-nine Catholic elementary school throughout the diocese. The decision of religious men and women to serve God and Church elsewhere than the classroom may easily be viewed as a disaster of immense consequences. Or it can be understood as a charge stemming directly from the Second Vatican Council challenging the diocesan laity to exercise their baptismal share in Christ’s priesthood by assuming a vital interest and accepting a personal involvement in the education of Catholic youth.
Many children today are no different than the urchins of LaSalle’s era. They are “often left to themselves and badly brought up.” They are “far from salvation.” Happily other children receive a fine introduction to Catholicism from their parents and grandparents. Still, formal Catholic education is perhaps more important now than it ever was as young people grow up in an entirely secular environment. Sunday is no different than any other day in Godless America and the same can be said of many other religious customs and traditions that used to support religious faith. Many local educators, both religious and lay, have dedicated themselves nobly to preserving the Catholic classroom locally. Larry Poitras at Good Shepherd in Woonsocket, the late Sister Martha Serbst at Woodlawn Regional in Pawtucket, and Kathy Morry, former principal at St. Augustine in Providence deserve much credit for their lengthy service to local Catholic schools. Father James Ruggieri and his staff at St. Patrick parish in Providence nobly and courageously initiated a Catholic high school especially for youngsters for whom current tuition rates were daunting. Alan Tenreiro, freshly appointed president at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, recently gave an eloquent summary to the local deanery on his efforts to preserve the Catholic nature of that nearly 100 year old high school.
The Grateful for God’s Providence Capital Campaign being conducted throughout the diocese over the next two years is seeking an endowment of $5,000.000.00 to insure the continuation of formal Catholic education in Rhode Island. A tradition that dates back to the Ascension deserves much practical and much generous support.
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