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.”

The school’s religious identity also is reflected in its adoption of “The Catholic Entrepreneurship and Design Experience,” a college-level course developed by Professor Luke Burgis at the Catholic University of America that, according to CUA, “forms a Catholic imagination ordered toward the incarnation: the creation of things that are True, Good, and Beautiful.” The course encourages each student to explore his or her “own vocation—his or her unique way of creating value in the world,” and seeks to prepare students to “live and create in service to others.”

St. Mary’s commitment to the Catholic tradition of faith and reason has yielded strong results. The school’s college-placement rate is exemplary, with the school reporting that 99 percent of recent graduates have been accepted into college. They have entered Brown, Cornell, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and many other top colleges. For a school with fewer than 100 graduates annually, this is an impressive accomplishment.

St. Mary’s is located in an affluent community, but its demographics are varied. Twenty-four percent of its students are black, 17 percent are Hispanic, and 30 percent of students receive financial aid for tuition costs. Over 40 percent of the students come from New York City, largely from south and central Queens. They come to St. Mary’s in search of an alternative to the public schools in their home communities.

During my 40-year career, Catholic schools have seemed to be on a path to extinction. American bishops founded these schools in the nineteenth century to preserve the faith among Catholic immigrants. Over the course of 100 years and against public opposition, they created the country’s largest alternative to public schools. By 1960, that system, staffed largely by women religious, was educating 12 percent of all students in the United States. But many Catholics soon migrated to the suburbs, the church underwent internal changes, and the schools began to decline—and close.

The experience at St. Mary’s, driven by dedicated priests, a new order of women religious, and lay people inspired by these priests and sisters, suggests that a renewal of Catholic education may yet be possible. Such a renewal won’t be easy. It will have to be guided by faith and reason—both at the core of what St. Mary’s does every day.

Photo: Jim.henderson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


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