A Parish School Turns Failure into Success

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

 ∼  John Keats, the opening to Endymion

In 1923 Polish immigrants, living in Grand Rapids and earning their bread from the choking dust of the gypsum quarries, completed their parish church, Sacred Heart of Jesus, and heard the first Mass to be celebrated on the main floor. I’ve recently returned from visiting that church. It is a magnificent structure, built like a Roman basilica, with a high coffered ceiling, elegant stained glass windows, and a tripartite sanctuary whose architectural angles all soar upwards. There used to be tall side altars to left and right of the apse, but those, no doubt along with many other works of culture and devotion, were hustled out of the way during the decades that taste, common decency, and filial piety forgot.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Nevertheless there’s been a miracle at Sacred Heart of Jesus. It has required no less. The parish church had long had a school attached, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. The school stretched its muscles and grew in stature, till it served as many as 750 students in 1960. Keep in mind that this was no diocesan school, but a block-by-block brick addition to the parish complex. Then came the decades that gratitude forgot, and they hit the school hard. By 1980, there were only 178 students, and only one sister of an increasingly sidelined Lady.

My readers may well fill in the details. They hardly vary from diocese to diocese and parish to parish. In 1960, my parish church in northeastern Pennsylvania had—and needed—three priests, to serve about five thousand Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics. Father McGinley, the man who baptized me, had put the final artistic touches on the grand Romanesque church that the Irish miners had built eighty years before. He bequeathed, if I recall the total correctly, $195,000 of his family money to our Saint Thomas Aquinas School. It was to be invested in an annuity, the interest to defray the school’s operating costs for many years to come.

Well, then came the decades that forgot the sacramentality of culture. Our sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary contracted a secular feminist virus, and withered away. By 1980 the school was on its last legs. It no longer exists. But then, much of the art with which Father McGinley endowed the church no longer exists, either. Let us not even mention the prayers.

So in 2013, the school in Grand Rapids was down to 65 students. Then Father Robert Sirico, Father Peter Damien, the schoolteachers, and the parish council embarked on a plan.

What that plan was, I’ll describe shortly. First I’d like to note a feature of every instance of cultural and artistic renewal that history records. It is simply this: Periods of swift decline are characterized by destruction, dismissal, and forgetting; people become too proud to learn from their forebears, or they no longer have the heart for it, or both. But periods of flourishing are characterized by recovery of what had been forgotten, or reconsideration of the old and venerable. Dante brings Virgil into medieval Christendom. Donatello travels about central Italy quite literally to unearth the sculptures of classical Greece and Rome. Pope Leo XIII turned to the Angelic Doctor to do battle against the errors of the age, and the result was seventy years of remarkable Catholic literature, philosophy, and theology. When grateful hearts turn to the past, they do not merely copy what they find. Dante was not Virgil, Donatello was not Phidias, and Maritain was not Thomas.

The point is that true beauty is never old. It never fails us, though we may fail it by neglect. We may forget it, or scorn it, or take it for granted without entering into a contemplative relationship with it. What does grow old? The ephemeral is old by the end of the day, because it is wholly dependent upon the attitudes and preoccupations of the day. Consider how embarrassing are the blockish faux-primitive stained glass windows of the sixties, the products not of a real engagement with great art of the past, but of scornful rejection of centuries of tradition. Beauty is never found in the company of negation.

So then, three years ago, the priests and people of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish faced a decision. The school’s enrollment had dwindled to 65. It was learn or die. And that was when Father Sirico and the school’s teachers turned to the beauty and wisdom of the past. They turned to what still gives life.

How to revive a Catholic school? It takes the genius of humility. Let it be Catholic, and let it be a school.

I attended Mass at the church on a Friday morning, with students of all ages, boys and girls in clean and handsome uniforms, the boys wearing shirts and ties, the girls wearing blouses. Dozens of parents were also there, and other people from the parish. The Mass was solemn, with the tranquility of order. Just as a good strong growing tree has life, so there was life in that church, and a cheer that needed no words for expression. The altar boys had a youthful gravity about them. When they and the priests came forward for Communion, they brought out a couple of kneelers for the elderly, because the parishioners greet the Lord gratefully upon their knees, though the old rail against which they could once rest their hands has, by now, undoubtedly crumbled to dust. I knelt beside a schoolboy and a mother, as the priest and the altar boy made their way across the invisible limit of the sanctuary, and I could see their faces as they received the sacrament.

It isn’t only that every day begins with Mass. Every Mass ends with the Litany of the Sacred Heart. There’s weekly adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and there are regular opportunities for confession. The parish sponsors a series of speakers on education and the faith, for the benefit of parents, students, teachers, and everyone interested. The Catholic faith is the ground and the wellspring of the school. It is not a flavor, or a vague aroma, or a religion class tacked on once or twice a week. It is of the essence.

Then they remade the school into a school.

Haven’t we had enough of the arrogant educational experiments of the last eighty years, foisted upon a captive populace by unions and bureaucrats flush with power and tax money? Which of the beauty-forgetting innovations has ever worked? My best students at Providence College, unless they have studied Latin, know no grammar at all. My best students, unless they have gone to a school like Sacred Heart of Jesus, will likely never have heard the names of the greatest English poets: Chaucer, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Browning. My best students know no geography and very little history. They have no songs, other than the spewing of mass entertainment.

So Sacred Heart of Jesus has reformed itself as a classical school. What that means is straightforward enough. It means no more and no less than education as was taken for granted in the western world for centuries. Yes, there are classes in Latin. But that alone won’t suffice. You can’t paste Latin onto the ordinary curriculum of our schools. It would be like inserting a Bach chorale into the middle of forty hours of rap. A classical curriculum is simply the liberal arts, the free-making arts, revived; it is a return to a love for goodness, truth, and beauty. It is not vampires and modern dystopias, with two or three inoculations of a half-dead Shakespeare virus—plays read apart from the tradition of English poetry, and apart from history and culture, so as to ensure that students will hate them, or be frustrated by them, or reduce them into something “modern” and forgettable. It is good poetry, good fiction, good songs, beautiful art, noble (or sometimes admonitory) history, clear grammar, clear logic, careful geography, a strong memory, facility with numbers, and always a glance toward the stars.

In the third academic year of its reform, Sacred Heart School has more than tripled its enrollment, which now stands at 230; and they are beginning a parish high school. Chancery bureaucrats did their best to get in the way, but the bishop said that he had grown tired of closing schools, and so he let the people at Sacred Heart succeed.

A dead form, is it? No, not at all. Living waters from the rock.

My dear readers, we need a thousand Sacred Hearts, all over the country. If this can happen in rusty Grand Rapids, it can happen anywhere. Be Catholic, and be a school. Turn back to Mass and the sacraments, and learn again the liberal arts. If we cannot be John Henry Newman, we can at least raise people who can read him and understand what he is talking about. The adjective “classical” is a powerful magnet all by itself.

I too am tired of seeing our schools close. I am also tired of hearing that old ways are worn out, when in fact they have not been worn at all, but have been stuffed in boxes in the attic, with a thousand other treasures over which my Church, like a sleepy old she-dragon, has been long snoring.

We can expect little help from our leaders and our established institutions. It doesn’t matter. We do not now have the orders of teaching sisters and brothers who knew what learning was and who loved the faith. They will come, true, but they are not here yet in the numbers we need. That doesn’t matter either. The work must be done, and we must do it. It is pointless, after all these years, to argue that what crushed the life out of our parishes and schools was a mistake, and that what had long breathed life into them can still breathe that life. The time for arguing is past. Now is the time for deeds. A school risen from the dead speaks for itself—if people wish to hear.

(Photo credit: Vernon Wiering)


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