Yes, Your Catholic School Could (and Should) Be Beautiful
Updated: Mar 16
Catholic schools that are serious about offering a faithfully Catholic education need to find ways to incorporate beauty into their culture, curriculum, and campus, regardless of their size and budget.
© Robert Benson Photography: Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, Northfield, Massachusetts, recently renovated by Harrison Design with Canning Liturgical Arts
Thirteen years ago, Dr. Joseph R. McCleary was the superintendent of a school in Massachusetts and he made a decision that his facilities manager thought was foolish: he purchased hundreds of framed reproductions of classic works of art to be displayed in classrooms and hallways utilized by students.
The one-time expenditure cost $40,000 and would benefit 1,450 K-12 students on three campuses, immediately and for years into the future.
McCleary—an experienced Catholic educator —believed he was making a transformative investment in his school.
His facilities manager, however, believed he was wasting the school’s money. As the person responsible for the school buildings and grounds, he knew firsthand how reckless and disrespectful kids could be. He was sure that the artwork would be destroyed, piece by piece, and the janitorial staff would be tasked with disposing of the broken frames and shattered glass that would soon cover the floors.
McCleary and his team got to work finding reproductions of masterpieces by Raphael, Botticelli, Winslow Homer, John James Audubon, Peter Breughel, John Singer Sargent, Michelangelo, Johannes Vermeer, Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Rembrandt, and other artists whose works have been loved through the ages. They found an online company that paired the works with elegant frames at an affordable price. The finished pieces looked more expensive than they were.
The artwork went up and, to the astonishment of the facilities manager, did not come crashing down. After a few weeks, he called McCleary to report the changes he was seeing at the school:
In the classrooms and hallways where the masterpieces hung, students were NOT slamming into the walls and throwing their trash on the floor as they did before. Rather, they were stopping in front of the artwork. They were gazing at it, discussing it, and going out of their way to protect and honor it. In those spaces, the students had never been better behaved and the school had never been cleaner.
This was exactly the reaction McCleary expected. The kids did not know it, and neither did many of their parents and teachers, but the beautiful artwork had awakened a deep and largely neglected desire in their souls to encounter and ponder beauty and its essential relationship to their humanity.
McCleary explains that human beings are hardwired to desire beauty because beauty comes from the Creator and draws us to Him. Beauty can stop us in our tracks. When we see it, we may not understand it, but we recognize its transformative power to surprise and delight us and make us more human.
Which is why McCleary wanted the artwork to be installed in high-traffic hallways. He wanted all students, of all ages, to encounter beauty every day.
That many administrators, educators, and even parents would consider artwork to be curiously out of place in a school reveals how misguided society’s goals for education have become.
A New Theory of Education
Until about 100 years ago, it was understood that the purpose of education was to cultivate wisdom and other virtues in young people to help them live a good and noble life in all areas: to be a good friend, spouse, and citizen; to contribute positively to family and society; and to live and pass on the truths and traditions of western civilization, which included Christian morals and beliefs.
That changed with the spread of a new theory of education—so-called progressive education that was developed by atheist John Dewey and others—that sought to remake schools into centers for social reconstruction. The goal of progressive education was not to free human beings from the errors of the world through the cultivation of Christian virtue (through liberal arts study), but to produce workers and citizens who would conform to and support society’s goals (whatever they may be).
Enthusiasts for this new education did not believe in eternal truths written on the hearts of men. They did not believe in a natural law that governs morality, human nature, and happiness, and they certainly did not believe in the attainment of eternal life with an all-loving God.
As planners reinvented education to fulfill utilitarian goals, they abandoned traditional disciplines and methods that had contributed to human flourishing for nearly 3,000 years, including an embrace of beauty.
It is not just what was being taught (and not taught) that was suddenly so different, but also how and where it was being taught: in ugly, functional buildings designed to socialize the masses.
Our surroundings shape us. For generations, America’s children, ages 5 to 18, have spent their days surrounded by cinder blocks, plastic and metal furnishings, and tacky motivational posters.
Well, not all of America’s children.
Throughout the years, some educators have been intentional about creating schools that teach beauty not just through their culture and curriculum, but also through their campus. Over the course of decades, these educators have created a ripple effect in forming families and faculty members who have gone on to form other families and faculty members at other schools.
An Experienced Catholic Educator
Today, McCleary is the founding president of The Hawthorn School, an independent co-educational K-8 school in Bedford, New York that opened its doors this school year. The Hawthorn School is largely modeled after a school McCleary taught at for 21 years at the beginning of his career: The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland.
The Heights School is an independent all-boys’ school serving students in grades 3-12, that was founded in 1969. The mission of The Heights is “to assist parents in the intellectual, moral, physical, and spiritual education of their sons, with dedicated teachers training boys rigorously in the liberal arts.” Guided by Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, the school aspires to provide a “formation in virtue” that fosters “respect for every person, a desire to serve God and others, and an optimistic attitude towards life’s challenges.”
The Heights has developed a national reputation for being uniquely successful in forming virtuous, thoughtful, capable young men who are eager to live their faith in all aspects of their lives. The availability of the sacraments—which includes daily Mass and confession—coupled with the study of the liberal arts, a robust mentoring program, and an emphasis on beauty, are hallmarks of The Heights experience.
Visitors to The Heights are often struck by the natural beauty of the campus, which features a magnificent stone building with a two-story chapel, classrooms, mentoring rooms, and common areas (for middle and upper school students); “the Valley,” which is home to log cabin classrooms amidst a forested and grassy sanctuary set apart from the main building (for lower school students); and well-kept athletics areas that include an indoor basketball court and outdoor fields for baseball, lacrosse, soccer, and tennis.
McCleary began teaching at The Heights in 1982, one year before construction of the main building on campus was complete. He recalls that, early on, the school lacked the resources to fully decorate the interior of the building. Rather than compromise—for example, by bringing ugly furnishings into the school—the faculty acquired high quality items one by one. Beautiful art was a high priority. The faculty discovered they could find beautiful artwork at reasonable prices at estate sales.
Joe Cardenas began teaching at The Heights in 1994. He is head of the mentoring program and teaches art history and upper school theology. He helped guide the collaboration of two architects who designed the chapel: Henry Menzies, who designed the original Tenley Study Center in Washington, DC, and Bowie Gridley Architects, who designed the entire new high school building. He drew on his art history experience to select the liturgical items for the chapel, including statues, the stations of the cross, and furnishings, including the pews.
He shares a wonderful story about the importance of beauty that has become a part of the institutional knowledge of The Heights faculty:
Dr. Robert H. Jackson was the founding headmaster of The Heights. In the early years, he operated the school out of the Tenley Study Center. He was having a problem with boys roughhousing and throwing food in the dining room. Instead of coming up with harsher punishments or more rules, he decided to surround the boys with beauty. He spent his Christmas break enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the dining room by putting up wood paneling. When the boys returned to school, they behaved—without being told to behave.
“They were pierced with beauty,” Cardenas explained, “and they were better for it.”
McCleary was head of the lower school when he left The Heights in 2003 to co-found The Avalon School, a K-12 Catholic school in Wheaton, Maryland, inspired by the philosophy of The Heights that continues to thrive today.
In 2007, McCleary accepted the challenge to become superintendent of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, which is the school featured at the beginning of this article. For the first time in his career, he found himself in the position of leading a school with no ties to the Catholic Church.
McCleary’s Catholic faith naturally influences everything he does, both personally and professionally. Charter schools are funded by the regular taxes paid by parents and operated by independent boards. As such, they have some independence regarding culture and curriculum, but are prohibited by law from teaching religion.
At the charter school, there could be no Mass, no confession, no theology classes, no Eucharistic processions, no school rosaries—absolutely no mention that the students are human beings made in the image and likeness of God and should act accordingly.
Because he could not lead with faith (expressly), he led with beauty. One of the first decisions he made as superintendent was investing in framed artwork—to, using Cardenas’s words, “pierce” students with beauty and elevate their desires and expectations governing their behavior. He initiated other changes informed by his prior experience and, before long, the school achieved a national ranking and waitlist of 2,500 students.
In 2017, McCleary was tapped to serve as president of The Schools of St. Mary in Manhasset, New York, which educates over 600 students in nursery through grade 12. During his tenure, he implemented a comprehensive revitalization of the institution which included installing framed paintings depicting beautiful scenes from history, literature, lives of the saints, scientific achievement, and nature; brightening the school with fresh paint (the old color was a dull brown); upgrading the student dining area with warm and attractive furnishings; renovating the bathrooms (something ignored at many schools, but vitally important for what it says about the dignity of each student and staff member, not to mention visitors); directing that the school gardens be kept up and regularly cleaned; and initiating fundraising for an extensive renewal of the performing arts facility.
A New School Founded on Beauty
In the winter of 2020, McCleary received a call from Andrés I. Pérez-Benzo, who had been a student in his 5th grade class at The Heights 20 years earlier.
Pérez-Benzo runs a hedge fund in New York City. He is happily married with two children, ages two and one, and another on the way. His Catholic faith informs and unifies all aspects of his life; it is his anchor that provides daily stability and support and reveals the meaning and purpose of his work, family life, and friendships.
He has always been aware that The Heights prepared him for the world’s challenges better than many of his peers’ schools prepared them. For that reason, he had always assumed that he would return to the Washington, D.C. area when he had a family and send his sons to The Heights.
About five years ago, it became clear that Pérez-Benzo’s career would keep him in New York. He was a bachelor at the time, but he anticipated getting married someday and having a family. There was no school like The Heights nearby. From talking with families, he realized that demand for a school like The Heights has existed for a long time in New York. He decided to start a school for those families and, someday, his own.
By the summer, he had assembled a board of trustees who shared his vision. The next critical step would be to find a headmaster who was not only an experienced leader and educator, but who had the right kind of experience. This was no small feat because most educators—including many Catholic educators at Catholic schools—work in schools steeped in narrowly utilitarian and/or ideological principles and goals.
He reached out to McCleary and initiated an extensive interview process. Over the course of two years, Pérez-Benzo had the opportunity to get to know the man he knew as his childhood teacher—who, then, had been a young man early in his career—as a seasoned professional who had clearly continued to cultivate an interior life of prayer and piety.
Pérez-Benzo assembled a board of directors (he is chairman) and McCleary was hired in July of 2021. They secured a long-term lease on an empty school building that had been built in 1958. One of their first priorities was elevating the aesthetics of the building.
They interviewed the best architects in the country and hired Harrison Design, a firm that had designed some of the most beautiful sacred buildings in the country, including Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Northfield, Massachusetts, Holy Innocents Catholic Church in Long Beach, California, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesboro, Virginia, and Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Peachtree Corners, Georgia.
But it was the firm’s work for a Catholic school—St. Benedict Classical Academy in South Natick, Massachusetts—and the principal in charge of that project, Nicolas Leo Charbonneau, that most impressed Pérez-Benzo and his board. Charbonneau had trained under Duncan Stroik, whose insistence on beauty has sparked a revival in sacred Catholic architecture, at the University of Notre Dame.
Charbonneau's work incorporates the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras with the spiritual truths of Christianity. He explains:
Pythagoras famously discovered that when something is proportional—that is, when the relationship between its parts is reducible to a simple numerical ratio—it is pleasing to the eye and ear, such that a piano or guitar chord sounds ‘good’ to us when the strings vibrate within simple ratios of each other, such as 1:2, 2:3, or 3:4. Architecture is the same way. Certain shapes, whether the shape of a room or the facade of a building, have these simple relationships between the sides, such as a square (1:1), or a rectangle twice as tall as it is wide (1:2). Creating rooms and walls with these proportions speaks in a subtle but profound way to our soul, which desires order and can instinctively identify these ratios when they are present. In classical architecture, these ratios are pursued in every element, including columns, window and door openings, down to the smallest moulding profiles.
Charbonneau’s understanding of the wholeness and connectedness of the human person—as created body and soul by God and for God, and with the capacity to encounter Him in the world—gives his work an exceptional depth. He says that architecture is a student’s first teacher. As such, he has developed a distinct passion for helping Catholic educators create spaces that reinforce the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Catholic faith.
Pérez-Benzo and his board hired Charbonneau and entrusted him with the architectural renovation of their school. They have been delighted by the transformation.
The lobby of The Hawthorn School underwent the most significant changes and appropriately so. Charbonneau says that great care must be taken in the architecture and design of any entryway because that is where the building’s story is told.
Today, Hawthorn's entryway tells the story of a noble house of learning. Charbonneau walked Catholic School Playbook through a step-by-step analysis showing how that happened.
1. Beginning with a crude and cluttered entryway
This is what the lobby looked like when The Hawthorn School acquired its building. The space was crude and cluttered, reflecting the artificiality of contemporary culture. The corridor walls were covered with harsh concrete blocks, flimsy paper banners, piles of plastic trophies, and scattered religious items showing a feeble but failed attempt to bestow meaning and purpose.
2. Cleaning up the space
The first priority was cleaning up the space. Here you can see that the distracting clutter has been replaced with objects communicating the dignity of a student’s vocation. The walls and ceiling have been softened and idealized with painted drywall. Simple but elegant furnishings have been added to invite conversation and engagement with books and peers. Sacred art has been hung on the walls to provide a catechesis of beauty and the opportunity to strike the heart with desire for the true, good, and beautiful.
3. Bringing elegance to the lighting and floors
Next, the fluorescent lights and harsh floors were replaced with elegant light fixtures and porcelain tiles, transforming what was a mere corridor into an entry hall worthy of welcoming guests.
4. Adding authentic materials and craftmanship
Then, well-crafted crown moulding, wall base, and paneled doors were added. The warmth and intricate patterning of the stained wood gives a heightened sense of meaning to arrival, departure, and motion through the hall.
5. Completing the space with architectural embellishment
Finally, wainscot paneling, ceiling beams, and a tiled and arched niche for the crucifix were added. The embellishments elevate every corner of the space into a classical composition, conveying beauty, order, and formality, and granting visual hierarchy to Christ, enthroned as the model of faith and virtue and object of adoration.
The beauty that Charbonneau developed in the entryway extends throughout the school in a special way: through 57 framed works of art that hang on the walls of classrooms and hallways. This was a priority for Pérez-Benzo from the earliest stages of his development of the school because it was at The Heights that he developed a deep love for art. Choosing the artwork was easy. Since taking Cardenas’s art history class as a high school student, he has kept a running list of favorite paintings on Google doc. Many of the paintings at The Hawthorn School—including his favorite, Johannes Vermeer's “The Geographer,” as well as John Constable's “The Haywain” and William Turner's “A View of Oxford”—appear on that list.
Beauty and the Catholic School Renewal
It's worth noting that the development of The Hawthorn School is not typical. Many new Catholic schools start out renting space and operating on a shoestring budget. Their buildings more closely resemble Hawthorn’s “before” picture than its “after” picture.
But McCleary hopes that all Catholic schools that are serious about offering a faithfully Catholic education will find ways to incorporate beauty into their culture, curriculum, and campus, regardless of their size and budget. For Catholic educators, beauty is not optional; it is essential to forming young people who will resonate to the splendor of creation as they grow to contemplate eternal truths.
Here are a few ways all Catholic schools—including those on a limited budget—can bring beauty to their communities immediately:
Enrich the culture and curriculum with poetry, classic literature, sacred music, art history, and drama.
Fill open teaching positions with educators who received a Catholic liberal arts education from the University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College, Benedictine College, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, and other faithfully Catholic colleges.
Clean, purge, and declutter all spaces in the school, taking special care to clear the entryway.
Appoint a committee of parents to tackle simple but important projects, including keeping the bathrooms clean and painting hallways and classrooms. The committee could operate by assembling teams of volunteers or fundraising/hiring cleaners, painters, and other professionals.
Invest in beautiful, framed artwork, one piece at a time. Artwork could be donated or purchased at estate sales or online. Benedictus Art offers museum-quality fine art reproductions with a 115-year protection against fading.
Initiate discussions with school families about raising money to renovate key spaces. Charbonneau and the schools featured in this article, including St. Benedict Classical Academy, would be a great resource for exploring future projects.
Catholic education is undergoing a tremendous renewal right now. Fueled by an urgency to set the hearts of children on fire for Christ, Catholic school leaders across the country are swapping out secular materials, methods, and philosophies, and reclaiming the Church’s intellectual and sacramental traditions. These are the educators who should be leading the charge for beauty in our schools today.
Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and director of programs and general counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation. She is the author of Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage (TAN Books).