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Renewing Catholic Education on the Atlantic

Ray Domanico at City Journal

Photo by Brian Lundquist / Unsplash

St. Mary’s High School, a small parish-run Catholic school, sits just over the city line in Manhasset, Long Island. The school serves 334 students, while another 266 attend the jointly governed elementary school. St. Mary’s is undertaking a multiyear effort to rededicate itself to classical education and the rich Catholic tradition.

These efforts come at a perilous time for Catholic schooling in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Elementary school enrollment has shrunk by half since 2016, and high school enrollment is down 28 percent. The diocese’s high school enrollment is concentrated in three large schools—St. Anthony’s, Kellenberg, and Chaminade—which cumulatively serve two-thirds of Catholic high school students, with the remaining third spread over six schools, including St. Mary’s. For the other schools to survive, they must commit to an unclouded vision of Catholic education, centered on academic excellence and moral values grounded in the faith. St. Mary’s may point the way.

St. Mary’s success is driven in part by its clergy. The parish runs the elementary, middle, and high schools, and its priests are deeply involved. The pastor, Father Robert Romeo, strongly supports the schools, and his young associate, Father Dominik Wegiel, serves as the high school’s chaplain. The schools’ president is Father Elias Carr, a theologian as well as a priest. Four nuns from the esteemed Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, teach at the schools and work to prepare students for the sacraments.

These seven men and women provide an extraordinary religious presence in the schools in an era of aging priests and one-priest parishes. In his annual report to supporters, Romeo described the parish’s relationship with the schools as being rooted in stewardship, citing the Parable of the Talents from the Gospel of Matthew. He then enumerated the many ways the schools increase the God-given talents of the children they serve, including through excellent academic, sports, music, and dramatic programs, and most importantly, a commitment to a core Catholic mission.

In January 2022, the high school participated in a Novena for Human Dignity, a nine-day exercise of scriptural reading and prayer. As Fr. Elias describes it:

The Novena seeks to overcome the tedious political division between “pro-life” and “social justice,” for neither can be excluded without harming the integrity of the Catholic faith. American Catholics have unique resources upon which to draw in service to the “unfinished work”—as Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address—to fulfill the promise of America. For the divisions in our country to be healed, we need better ways of thinking, listening, and speaking to one another about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Education as the integral formation of the human person in terms of a passage from ignorance and prejudice to truth and love can achieve this end.

The Novena ended with a charge to students to practice the following resolutions:

  1. To greet everyone I meet at school with a smile and with joy;
  2. To include the excluded, to welcome the stranger, and to learn from people who are different from me;
  3. To listen respectfully when others speak and share honestly what I believe;
  4. To assume good faith, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to seek mutual understanding;
  5. To seek pardon when I have harmed another and to extend pardon when another asks me;
  6. To show courage in danger, calm in fear, and patience in stress

Those resolutions are put into practice every day in the classroom. St. Mary’s High School students take four years of religion classes, including Catholic theology, Church history, scripture, morality, and either Christian marriage or theological foundations in grade 12. In addition to theology studies, all students participate in the Convivium, “a four-year-long journey in search of a deeper appreciation for the meaning and purpose of our existence.” Each year, these small-group discussions are organized around a single theme. In 2021-22, the theme was human dignity, and in 2022-23, the science and theology departments jointly designed a focus on the wonders of the universe. The program’s purpose is for students and faculty “to experience the mutually enriching dialogue between faith and reason.”

Read the rest

Renewing Catholic Education on Long Island
St. Mary’s in Manhasset shows a way forward for religious education.