HAMDEN – “Go out and tell our story…the story of Catholic education.”
That was the charge that Sister Clare Fitzgerald of the School Sisters of Notre Dame gave to a group of 425 Catholic parents and educators gathered at Sacred Heart Academy Nov. 2 to launch a new Parent/Guardian Ambassador Program sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools.
“You are the authority,” she said. “Work with your principal to share your story of Catholic education … an education for a lifetime and for eternal life.”
One of the foremost authorities on Catholic education, Sister Clare, who also addressed a gathering of 213 parents the following evening at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol, was invited to help kick off the program designed to promote word-of-mouth marketing for Catholic schools.
Sprinkling her talk with humor, charm and the wisdom of her career in education, she provided a historical perspective on Catholic schools in the United States, explaining that the first big push began in 1884 when immigrants were pouring into the country.
At a time when discrimination against Catholics was widespread, bishops agreed that education was the vehicle needed to preserve Catholic identity in a largely Protestant country; and parishes began building schools.
She said that children were taught to read, write, pay bills and learn the Baltimore Catechism from communities of women religious who provided “cheap labor.”
But “the greatest chapter” in Catholic education took place from 1940-75 when World War II brought a change in attitudes, and enrollment peaked at 6.5 million students in 1975. Families, too, demanded higher standards for their children, and the teaching sisters were sent to universities to get a degree because “kids were going up the social ladder.”
“We were bursting at the seams in Catholic schools,” she noted. But then came changes brought about by Vatican II, the Vietnam War, civil rights, a move away from urban cities, smaller families and salaries for teachers, among other social and political events.
The result was a drop in enrollment to 2.6 million students in the years from 2000-04, and to its current low of 2.1 million in 2009.
“Now we’re facing recession,” said Sister Clare. “But the story of Catholic education and the Church is one of crisis after crisis after crisis.”
“How do we weather the storm?” she asked. “Go out and tell the story … the story of why Catholic education is a national treasure to the Church.”
The story, she said, is found in its academic excellence, such as the highest rate of graduates/lowest rate of dropouts, high standards of achievement, a moral foundation, discipline, a learning environment in schools, a family feeling of caring, an emphasis on service, and “teachers who are there because they want to be.”
It’s an education that makes a difference in the lives of students, too. Sister Clare relayed that when the Jesuits did a study with students a few years ago, students said that they wanted more moral and ethical direction to help them make the right choices in their lives, and more days of prayer and reflection.
Plus, she added, there’s an “eternal significance” to the Catholic education system. “We’ve been created by God for God. That’s the gift you’re giving your child,” she said, encouraging parents to work with their principals to spread the word.
“That’s our story, one of excellence, spirituality, intelligence, academics,” she said. “You’re giving a great legacy to your child, even though it’s a great sacrifice to do it.”
Dale R. Hoyt, superintendent of Catholic schools, also expressed his gratitude to parents.
“Thank you, parents and guardians, for saying ‘yes’ to Catholic education,” he said, as he talked about his parents’ sacrifice to ensure his own Catholic upbringing and the extensive Catholic education that has shaped his life.
“Thank you for being in partnership … in community with us,” he said.
Mr. Hoyt said any parent or guardian who is interested in being an ambassador may approach the child’s principal to share the “good news” about Catholic education and the “advantages of a faith-based educational experience with other families.”
Parents and educators were also enthusiastic about Sister Clare’s program.
“She’s outstanding and so motivating for our parents on the importance of Catholic education,” said Toni Parenteau from St. Aedan/St. Brendan School in New Haven. “Her passion is so amazing.”
Added Maria Lanteri of Berlin: “Even though I work in a public school, I send my children to a Catholic school. It’s not enough to teach them to read and write, and to send them to religion classes once a week. You need a solid religious foundation, and it starts when they are young. They have to live their faith every day.”