From time to time, I visit with two classmates from the elementary school I attended, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in New Albany, IN. Almost always the conversation returns to those years when we haunted the halls of "OLPH," as we affectionately called it. We gratefully recall the Franciscan Sisters from Oldenburg, IN, who taught us. From time to time, we also recall the adverse conditions those Sisters faced in educating us - adverse conditions that were almost always of our own making. Suffice it to say, the Sisters and their lay counterparts were wise and experienced educators who could accurately predict most of our pranks even before we tried to implement them. Even more amazingly, they managed to educate between 50 and 60 very active youngsters in the same classroom, year after year. And they did a good job. We consistently scored well on national tests - well above our grade levels.
Even more importantly, the parish priests, Sisters, and lay teachers taught us to know and to love the faith. We always looked forward to visits from the pastor, Father Wagner, except when he was giving out report cards. When he asked questions about what we were learning in religion class, most of our hands were in the air, vying to volunteer our answers. The Sisters were a source of unending mystery for us. We couldn't imagine what they talked about when they returned each night to the convent (they were talking about us), and we were intrigued by their way of life and religious habits. We respected them and we respected the lay teachers who were their dedicated co-workers. Elementary school was not always idyllic, but years later, my classmates and I recognize what a great benefit it was in our lives and how many sacrifices had to be made to provide it for us.
Times have changed, but the excellence of Catholic education has not. The Catholic schools of the Diocese of Bridgeport do a wonderful job in educating our young people in the faith and in preparing them for high school and college. They always have and they always will require commitment and sacrifice on the part of parents, teachers, administrators, and staff, and on the part of the wider Church community. But it is an investment well worth making. Through its elementary and secondary schools, found throughout the Fairfield County, the Diocese of Bridgeport continues to invest heavily in its young people.
Before focusing on the ultimate mission of Catholic schools, let me underscore that a Catholic education is a good education for our young people. Catholic Schools provide them with a safe environment, based on faith and respect, where students can learn and grow in so many ways. Test scores don't tell the whole story - but they do tell a great story. The children in our Catholic schools continue to score well above their peers. In this Diocese, our Catholic schools measure academic achievement with the Iowa Mastery Test, a truly national benchmark. Last spring, our students did well on the ACRE test, a national exam that gauges religious literacy.
And our schools are a study in efficiency. Catholic schools, on average, educate young people for about half of what it costs to educate them elsewhere. Every effort is made to keep expenses low and to use as many resources as we can to benefit our young people. Our administrators and teachers make great financial sacrifices to serve the mission of Catholic education. And I know that many parents make tremendous financial sacrifices to provide tuition and to be involved directly in the education of their children. But the results speak for themselves. Let me add that every parish makes a substantial financial commitment to our Catholic schools, as does the Diocese itself.
Sometimes people say that the day of the Catholic school is over. But I don't believe it. Catholic schools are vital, not only because of their academic excellence, their safety and the personal attention given to students - they are also vital because they are a primary way in which the faith is communicated to each succeeding generation. Catholic schools work with parents in helping young people grow in the knowledge and love of God and in active participation in the life of the Church. That is the ultimate mission of our Catholic schools.
Young people today are as good, as generous, and as idealistic as they were at any time in history. They are talented, gifted by God. They are - as every parent will attest - our most precious God-given resource. But young people today face many challenges that most of us would not have imagined growing up 40 or 50 years ago. They live in a culture that discourages belief in God and tries to hinder them from forming a relationship with God - the most important relationship in life. Our fast-paced culture with its narrowly defined understanding of success poses tremendous challenges both for young people and their parents. And our secular culture is not friendly to the virtues and values that flow from our faith in Christ.
As a result, many young people have every material advantage, but find themselves isolated, sometimes confused, and sometimes misled. As parents, you know all about these challenges - and you know them better than I. So I invite you to see our Catholic schools as a wonderful friend in helping you in your beautiful but awesome calling from God to raise your children in the Church's faith.
Our schools also help those who are struggling to make better lives for themselves. I am especially proud of the work that our Catholic schools continue to do in our urban settings. Many of those students and their families face economic hardship and the difficulties that come with adjusting to a new language and a new culture, and with the urban environment. But when given the chance, these young people excel. Last year, for example, 97% of those who attended Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport went to college. That same splendid statistic is replicated and even exceeded in all the diocesan high schools.
You should know, however, that we will have to work very hard and be very generous to sustain our Catholic schools in the years ahead. Already under way is a comprehensive study of our schools to ensure that they will be able to continue their vital mission in the years ahead and to meet the specific needs of students in the various areas of the diocese. Through the pages of Fairfield County Catholic and on the diocesan website, you will be updated on the progress of that study.
I am grateful for all that has been accomplished in the past, but you and I cannot afford simply to look to the past. We must look ahead with confidence. I invite new generations to join even more fully in the mission of our Catholic schools. They are a wonderful part of our mission as a local Church, as One Family in Faith.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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