How to rebuild Catholic education from the grass-roots

How to rebuild Catholic education from the grass-roots

Sr Mary Augustine OP

Let no minority group so much as hope to convert that ideologically driven, pagan juggernaut, the modern education system, into anything remotely compatible with the mind of Christ. No, all we can do is claim our rights to suitable local alternatives hoping - sometimes against hope, because "liberal" often means narrow and intolerant - that the liberal climate will work in our favour.

One local alternative worthy of note is the newly established Blessed Mary Mackillop Colleges project in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Running fundamentally on faith, hard work and unthinkable sacrifices at all levels, these two single-sex schools (at present operating more or less as one, due to the constraints of numbers and available resources) are now in their third year with sixty-plus students in Years 5-9 and 11. In 2010, the addition of years K-4 will bring the enrolment to an expected 100.

Key features

What are some of the key features of this school? To begin with, practice of the faith here is a majority affair. Our students are not perfect, but it is generally taken for granted among them that Sunday Mass, regular Confession, daily prayer and learning in the faith are a non-negotiable part of life and nothing to cringe about.

Add to this the fact that our staff, about half of whom presently are religious sisters, are totally committed to the Magisterium of the Church and to its moral teachings. Joanne and Bill Andrews, who founded the colleges, and Barbara Chigwidden as principal, eminently fit this description themselves and are careful to see that the people they employ do likewise.

The religion program, which is based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, encompasses all the doctrines of the faith, Catholic morality and spirituality and Church history. We use text-books written by the sisters especially for use in the school and which emphasise key approaches to faith-learning: memorisation, understanding and application to life.

The students are exposed to the language of the Church, its traditional music (including Gregorian chant), its prayers and its culture in general. We are blessed in having a kindly and vigilant Bishop and the advice, example and ministration of many excellent priests.

Highlights of the religion program include student-formation and pastoral care. Apart from the annual retreat day, the students meet regularly with staff in smaller year-group sessions to talk about school life and strategies for living the various Christian virtues. Parents are involved in the lead-up and follow-up for these.

Pastoral care also has its day- to-day dimensions as we help the students to grow in faith - classroom prayers, weekly school Mass, monthly Eucharistic adoration and Confession - and in the everyday humane skills related to the Christian virtues, such as courtesy, personal presentation and efficiency, affability, justice, and so on. The school has a list of very specific expectations for student behaviour, drawn up by the staff and relayed to students and their parents.

This is a school which pushes for high academic standards but with a minimum of frills. We don't have enough students, enough teachers, enough funds to be involved in large-scale sports training and competitions, sophisticated extra-curric- ular activities (students are expected to do a minimum of Christian service in their own time), or recreational excursions. We do spend serious and quality time in the classroom, keeping interruptions to a minimum and with zero tolerance of disruption by students.

Some students have come from more flexible situations such as home-schooling, or from classrooms where students were more free to "do things their way". Like most young people, they don't all appreciate the value and joy of learning for its own sake, and there is often the need for cultural and academic adjustment. Fun in the classroom is not regarded as an end in itself, although we do know how to celebrate on Feast days.

We also try to keep a genuinely cultural dimension in what we offer. English studies include the classics of English literature and we try to give emphasis to quality drama and music. In our first year of operation, the school choir won the championship cup in the Wagga Eisteddfod, and this year we were asked by the organisers of the NSW Civic Awards Launch to provide the entertainment for this event - a prestigious publicity opportunity.

Contemporary culture

The school keeps a weather eye on contemporary culture, critiquing and banning negative teenage "cult" literature and films such as the Twilight series. At our most recent parent function, Father Thomas Casanova CCS conducted an excellent set of talks and discussions on the pluses and minuses of communications technology and the parental role in preventing children from becoming addicted or otherwise dehumanised by it all.

The odds of the world are set heavily against a project such as this, but the school's own holy patroness faced odds no less great. She saw no choice but to supply an alternative to the religious and educational wastelands of her day, and Jo and Bill Andrews and the staff and parents of Blessed Mary Mackillop Colleges are relying on the same divine help that made the impossible possible for her.

It is probably time for the Catholics of Australia to get back into "pioneer" mode; the only way ahead is to rebuild.

Sister Mary Augustine OP is prioress of the Conventual Sisters of St Dominic whose sisters teach on the staff of the new Blessed Mary Mackillop Colleges, Wagga Wagga, www.blessedmary.nsw.edu.au (02) 69218999.

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