Published Online: February 26, 1997


Keeping the Faith

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When an ambulance siren blared past the school, the students said Hail Marys.

Not coincidently, one of the first sessions given in the Providence leadership program is the one on Catholic identity. Participants must draft a report assessing a school's culture, zeroing in on evidence of its Catholicity.

Levesque, who runs the session, says participants score few points by listing such material evidence as school uniforms, crucifixes, and statues of the Virgin Mary.

"I believe I could have a Catholic school that doesn't have all of those symbols, and that it could be just as Catholic," she says. "Because we'd be living what we believe. That's regardless of the symbols. What's nice about the symbols is that they serve as reminders."

When Henry Fiore did the assignment, he was struck most by the spontaneous things he saw, like students praying on their own during lunch. When an ambulance siren blared past the school, the students in a class he was visiting said Hail Marys.

Like Round, Fiore in some ways seemed an unlikely candidate for leading a Catholic school. Before coming to the Providence Diocese, he had only public school teaching experience. Although he attended a Catholic elementary school through grade 6, he claims to have been the class clown, and his knuckles often stung from the wrath of nuns with rulers when that was still the norm.

While he's tried a variety of jobs, rock music has been one of the main constants in his life. On evenings and weekends, he plays rhythm guitar with his band, "The Rhode Island Storm," which he says got started with the help of the musical group John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. A photograph of Fiore and Cafferty on stage hangs over his desk--near a large crucifix and several other religious artifacts--at the Cranston-Johnson Catholic Regional high school, where he is now the assistant principal.

In Fiore's mind, the leadership-training program literally was the answer to a prayer. He says he saw an announcement for the program tacked to his church bulletin board at a time when he was praying for direction in his career. As with Round, he credits the program with showing him how much was involved in running a Catholic school.

"They really emphasized the fact that this is a ministry, and I never thought of it that way as a lay person," Fiore says. Despite all the time he'd spent on stage with his band, he recalls the cold feet he had the first time he led the schoolwide prayer in Cranston-Johnson's cavernous gym.

"The very first day, I was petrified about getting in front of 450 people to pray out loud," he says. "I'd always done that in private."

Fiore works hard to integrate his religious beliefs into his administrative duties.

Discipline is a case in point. Fiore strongly believes that discipline can be carried out more effectively in a religious school, and as an example, he mentions the case of Marisa Lupo and Ashley Power, two 5th graders at Cranston-Johnson. Although the two had long been friends, an insignificant matter last year created a rift that led to several days of scowls and glares and eventually a brief tussle between the girls.

The real test may come in a few years, when many schools no longer have the sisters to train the new principals.

Fiore brought them into his office and had each write down why their actions went against what they'd learned about the Ten Commandments. Then he had both make a list of reasons why they had enjoyed being friends with the other and had them swap lists. The bad feelings dissipated with a few tears and hugs. Marisa says she still keeps her list in her dresser drawer to look at from time to time.

"For me, the big difference between the public and Catholic schools is the discipline," Fiore says. "It's much easier to enforce here than in the public schools. You can use God and Jesus in Catholic schools in the discipline."

Scholars of Catholic schools and their religious identity believe that as long as administrators like those in the Providence program can ensure that the gospel drives what happens at their schools, then little of significance will change in Catholic education.

"It's the ethos permeating why they do what they do, and that's no different," Jacobs says. "The same moral values are present in Catholic schools today as they were 300 years ago."

Some Catholic educators, however, worry that not enough is being done to train the next generation of leaders. Not all dioceses have the resources to create leadership-training programs.

"Over the past 30 years as the number of vowed religious have declined, my personal opinion is that we were slower to get at this need than we should have been," said Theodore J. Wallace, the director of the Center for Catholic Education at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Wallace is looking into forming a credential program to help ensure that those hired have the particular qualifications needed of a Catholic school administrator.

Such a program would help address another trend in some Catholic school systems with rapidly growing enrollments: an increasing number of retired public school personnel applying for positions in Catholic schools.

"We are concerned about that," says Sister Mary Peter Traviss, the director of the Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership at the University of San Francisco. "They may be very devout about their Catholicism, but they don't know beans about Catholic schools. There is a very specific culture to a Catholic school. We have a different mission."

Currently, about 25 Catholic colleges and universities have programs for training Catholic school administrators. While that number is growing, many say it doesn't address the needs of the more than 8,000 Catholic schools in United States.

For a diocese such as Providence, the real test will come in a few years when it no longer has the sisters to train the new principals. Round says she's thankful she now has a nun for a principal at Bishop McVinney to give her guidance.

"She has never made any of us feel lesser because we don't have her religious background," Round says of her school's leader, Sister Lillian Dempsey. "I think it's helped to build up my confidence, just feeling that if she believes in me, then I can do this job." And how confident is she that she can pass the tradition on to another lay principal when she becomes a mentor?

"I don't want to think about that," she says, laughing. "I'll cross that road when I get to it."

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