How a Religious Sister Reclaimed the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Her School
Until recently, the best kept secret in Catholic education was that Catholic schools can reverse plummeting enrollment—not by becoming more secular, but by becoming more Catholic. Over the last 15 years, schools that were on the verge of closing due to low enrollment—including St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan—have reversed their fates by embracing the intellectual and sacramental traditions of the Church. These formerly failing schools now have full enrollment with waitlists. They are among the most sought-after schools in the country.
It's important to celebrate these tremendous successes. It’s equally important not to reduce renewal efforts to a tool to fix enrollment crises—because not all schools are on the verge of closing, but all children enrolled at Catholic schools deserve to be immersed in the Church’s rich educational tradition.
Sr. Mary Alma is the principal of St. James Catholic School, a diocesan school in Crete, Nebraska, that has had stable enrollment and a strong community of supportive families for many years. Last year, she joined a growing number of Catholic school leaders who are swapping out secular-inspired materials and methods and reclaiming the Catholic heritage of their schools.
Her motivation is love for her students and their families.
St. James Catholic School was founded in 1887 by a priest and two Ursuline sisters. Crete is a rural community with a population of 7,000 people. Major employers include farms, meat packing plants, and the public school system. Sixty-five percent of St. James students are Hispanic or bi-racial and 35% are Anglo-American.
“Our school is made up of beautiful families who work hard, though many don’t have a lot of money. They want the best for their children and that begins with giving them a Catholic education,” said Sr. Mary Alma.
St. James has a strong Catholic identity. Religious sisters have maintained a central and consistent presence at the school since its founding, with the School Sisters of Christ the King serving on the faculty, alongside lay teachers, since 1997. Daily Mass has been a part of the school day for 25 years. Celebrations of the Church’s liturgical seasons, feast days, and saints, are a regular part of the school culture.
Sr. Mary Alma has been principal of St. James for nine years. In 2020, she was assigned by her Mother General to accompany another sister, a diocesan assistant superintendent, to an Institute for Catholic Liberal Education conference. The experience was transformative for her personally—and for her school families. She explains:
Our school has a strong Catholic identity. Our teachers are faithful. They are here to bring the Lord to the children. What I realized when I heard the presentations, though, is that we were missing the academic component of an authentic Catholic education. Our students were using materials developed for secular schools, and our other teachers were drawing on their secular training to teach in a way that clashed with the God-given nature of children; even our religious sisters received secular training. Our students were simply not benefiting from the intellectual and pedagogical traditions of the Church that cultivated faith, virtue, and wonder in previous generations.
She remembers thinking about the dull stories in the students’ basal readers, and how forgettable they were compared to the stories about Saints she read at her Catholic school growing up.
“Those stories formed me. I realized we could be doing better for our students,” she said.
The conference and a little bit of encouragement from the ICLE team was all it took for Sr. Mary Alma to make a plan to renew her school. Her first step was to begin a conversation with parents, the primary educators of their children.
She started with an advisory board made up of parents. She then initiated discussions at the five regularly scheduled gatherings between teachers and families throughout the year. She also had a staff member from the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education come to speak.
Before she ever used the terms “liberal education” or “classical education” with parents, she showed them the difference between the education their children were currently receiving and the education she wanted to give them. For example, at one of the gatherings, they read two children’s stories together: The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane Auch, a goofy story that had been a part of the school curriculum, and How Primrose Went to the Party, a classic fairy tale by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, which is the kind of story she had hoped to share with her students. She explained:
The parents were able to see the difference. They may have gotten a 3-second chuckle from The Princess and the Pizza, but they realized it was neither formative, nor worth remembering. That’s not how they responded to How Primrose Went to the Party. They thought that story was beautiful and they wanted their children to know it.
At other gatherings, Sr. Mary Alma organized discussions of the Gettysburg Address and a story about the Minoan bull leapers on the island of Crete. She told parents, “This is what I want to do with your kids.”
Not all parents at her school speak English, so she had a translator help Spanish-speaking parents understand the changes she wanted to make. The response was favorable among all but one couple.
She remembers one parent who works in a factory looking her in the eye and telling her, “I want this for my daughter.”
With the support of school parents, Sr. Mary Alma sought permission from the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska to deviate from diocesan academic standards. Bishop James D. Conley was extremely supportive of her plans. He knows from personal experience that liberal education in pursuit of truth can be life changing. It was a classical, great books program at the University of Kansas that led to his conversion to Catholicism in 1975.
Sr. Mary Alma implemented changes at her school at the beginning of the 2021-2022 year. She started with these three components:
She replaced the history curriculum with the Story of Civilization by TAN Books. “The stories in these books are wonderful. They are engaging and do not filter out the activities of the Church in world history. Our students love them—and so do our teachers!” she said.
She encouraged teachers to begin integrating good books and classic literature into the curriculum that complements what students are learning in history.
She added poetry memorization and recitation to the curriculum, organizing an all-school poetry recital, which generated a huge turnout from parents.
The changes have animated the whole community. Children, parents, and teachers have rediscovered the joy of learning centered on Truth. The response from teachers has been especially rewarding: they have a new enthusiasm for their craft and they want to learn and do more to cultivate wonder in their students.
The next school year will bring greater opportunities for members of the school community to immerse themselves more deeply in the Church’s traditions. Plans include having children (1) spend more time outside observing God’s natural world and (2) read more literature set in the same time period as the history they are studying.
Sr. Mary Alma is excited for Year Two of her school’s renewal. Her advice to schools considering embarking on a similar journey is this:
The intellectual and pedagogical traditions of the Church are rich and beautiful, but they cannot flourish unless a school community embraces the Truth of the Catholic Faith. It just makes sense to get the foundational components of a school right—hiring faithful teachers, protecting students from the damaging elements of the culture, offering the sacraments—before making curricular and pedagogical reforms.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has been a key partner in our renewal. I highly recommend that school leaders and teachers interested in reclaiming the Catholic heritage of their schools engage with ICLE as early as possible.
Above all, she says school leaders should focus on the unique role they play as educators charged with the formation of children: “The greatest motivation for our efforts is love for God and His children.”