Keeping the Faith

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In the minds of parochial-education leaders like Sister Sheila Durante, that devotion is more central to maintaining Catholic identity than knowing liturgy by heart.

As Round found out, her superiors in the Catholic school system were more interested in how she lived her values than in whether she knew all the saints by name.

"With Susan, there's an extreme dedication, especially to the kids of the inner city," says Durante, the leadership-program coordinator. "When I walk into her classroom and see all that she does with so little resources, I see someone who really and truly cares about the kids she teaches."

In the minds of parochial-education leaders like Durante, that devotion is more central to maintaining Catholic identity than knowing liturgy by heart.

To them, an effective Catholic principal is one who uses religious faith to guide every aspect of a school's administration, who can talk comfortably and publicly about his or her spiritual life, and who doesn't lose sight of the school's primary mission of spreading the gospel, despite the fact that many parents seek out the school primarily for academic reasons.

"You're living what you're reading and talking about," says Jean Patterson, the principal of the pre-K-8 St. Paul School in nearby Cranston and a graduate of the leadership-training program. "I see that in the concern for the individual, the community with the parents, the teachers who are here until 3:30 or 4 p.m., who also come in early to seek out the individual who needs that extra attentions. We're all working together to make that child's life better."

Unlike Round, Patterson attended Catholic schools while growing up in Providence. The school she leads today lacks many of the elements of the outward appearance of the Providence Catholic elementary school she attended in the late 1950s. Her principal was a nun, as was every teacher, and they all wore habits. The students' desks, each equipped with an inkwell, were arranged in rigid lines, and she remembers walking in silence to mass at the city's cathedral.

Although most of those features are gone from her current school, she starts the day by reading a prayer over the intercom. Students take a religion class and wear uniforms, and the building is adorned with religious artifacts. But even these features aren't what keeps the school Catholic, she says.

"I pattern our whole program here after the works of mercy, and if you're doing that, then you're doing what Jesus said that you should do," Patterson says.

One principal recently replaced the last of a line of nuns that had run St. Mary since it was founded.

That means not only ensuring that each school day and faculty meeting begins with a prayer, but also encouraging teachers to develop their own faith, and being willing to act as a personal counselor and minister, as well as an administrator.

"We've had parents who come to us who are victims of domestic violence, and somehow they connect us with that kind of social-service function," says Patricia Baumgartel, the principal of the St. Mary School in Pawtucket, north of Providence. "They see us as someone who might know the ropes or at least that our arms are open to them."

Baumgartel's arrival at St. Mary's two years ago signaled the end of a era for the century-old school, where the word "boys" and "girls" are still etched in the limestone over the doors on opposite sides of the building--a relic from the time when the genders were more separated. A graduate of the public school system, Baumgartel replaced the last of a line of nuns from the Sisters of Mercy order that had run St. Mary since it was founded.

Nonetheless, she believes her school is just as Catholic as when the religious order opened it. Baumgartel says she sees the measure of her school's Catholicity not in the number of religious artifacts and rituals found in the building but in more intangible things.

It's in the way she designed her office to be welcoming to students, with her handmade floral window curtains and the rocking chair she inherited from her mother. Despite her many administrative duties, she also coaches drama and teaches 8th grade math, while also taking 90 minutes every day so that she can greet each student individually at lunch and hear what's on their minds.

"Christ himself is a model of the behavior we're talking about," Baumgartel says. "The most important thing I do is act as a role model to other adults and to the students, and my faith acts out in that. The most important lessons we teach I don't think come from a textbook."

The fact isn't always understood by parents who seek a parochial school education for their children. Patterson remembers one non-Catholic couple who asked if their child could attend St. Paul but be excused from religious education. Although all students at the school do take a religious class--a requirement Patterson wasn't willing to waive--she also felt the question showed little understanding of Catholic education's mission of teaching everything through the gospel.

"It's an ongoing thing--it's not just 30 minutes in a religious class," Patterson says. "We have values that we can incorporate into any part of the day. It's hard to describe in words because it's a lifestyle."

As Levesque explains it, a school's Catholic identity isn't just reinforced by how well it teaches the religion's specific traditions but also through it's ability to weave the religious beliefs into whatever it teaches, as Round demonstrated in her recent lesson on homonyms.

"This integration of the spiritual and the religious has to be in every part of our lives," Levesque says. "In teaching math, we want you to not only be a good teacher, but we also want you to be a good person, to be a person of character, and treat the children like Jesus would."

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