Steeped and Schooled in Faith
Pour a little chocolate syrup into a glass of cold milk, and the syrup sinks to the bottom in a chocolatey blob. But stir it up, and chocolate milk can no longer be separated into its ingredients. The flavor is present in every sip.
In Catholic schools, teaching the faith is not relegated to a daily religion class that is separate from the rest of education. It’s present throughout the day — in opening prayers, the artwork in the halls, and the celebration of Mass, to cite a few examples.
For Catholic Schools Week, the NTC checked in with a few diocesan Catholic schools and found some unique ways the faith is passed on to the students, along with examples of students embracing that faith and sharing it with others in their communities.
Holy habits start early in Vince Martinez’s kindergarten class at St. George Catholic School in Fort Worth.
“Remember, God is listening,” Martinez tells his 15 students, and the little learners heed the admonition of St. Paul in Ephesians 6:18. “Pray at every opportunity in the Spirit.”
When the bells of St. George Church next door toll every hour, the students stop, put their hands together in prayer, take a deep breath, and close their eyes as the day’s prayer helper lifts up the intentions on his or her heart.
According to Martinez, they most frequently intercede for healing of an ill classmate or family member. Blessing of pets, and animals in general, are persistent requests.
The hourly bells are an opportunity to refocus, to acknowledge the presence of a loving Father, and to instill the habit of frequent prayer.
Martinez said prayer breaks only take a minute but teach the children that “God is always on your side. You can talk to God and pray at any time.”
The classroom also has a prayer table, where students can take a respite when negative emotions arise. Seeing them pray on their own gladdens Martinez’s heart. “I love it. They make me so proud,” the teacher said of his students. He described each class in his five years of teaching as “amazing.”
If St. Augustine is correct, the class doubles up on prayer time after lunch. The saint is credited with saying “He who sings prays twice,” and the students walk from the lunchroom back to class each day with their hands folded in prayer as they sing a song to the Blessed Virgin Mary on their way through the halls.
This tradition, said Martinez, teaches “Mother Mary is listening too. Don’t be afraid to ask her for help, and learn to love God and Jesus and Mary.”
Samantha Newman is an unlikely coach with an unlikely player, but both delight in their first season of basketball at St. Rita Catholic School.
The east Fort Worth school wasn’t going to be able to field a team of fifth- and sixth-grade girls basketball for lack of a coach.
Newman, the mother of a second-grade student, had never played basketball or coached before, but she’d watched many NBA games years ago when she worked for a trading card company.
“I’ll coach if no one else is going to do it. I’ll give it a shot,” she said, no pun intended.
The team of eight girls includes an unlikely player too. One player has Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder resulting in small stature and hearing loss.
“She is not treated any differently,” said Newman. “She gets the ball passed to her; everyone cheers her on; she shoots or passes; she has a great time.
“She’s part of the team as much as anyone else. It’s never been an issue. I didn’t have to address it. I’m proud of these girls.”
The kindness on the court is due to an inclusive atmosphere at St. Rita created by a shared faith, Newman surmised. “The school is such a family. Physical, economic, ethnic differences don’t mean anything. They are all equal to each other. It’s sweet to see how they interact.”
The season is short, but Newman hopes the skills she’s seen on the court will go with the girls in the future: Pray more often than you practice. Come together as a team. Never give up. Treat others with kindness.
Beneath the surface
Penmanship, multiplication — these rote lessons are anything but routine at St. Mary Catholic School in Gainesville.
“God is at the front and of foremost importance at our school, and we use every opportunity to tell God’s story,” said Kim Otto, principal.
For example, when the first-grade students practice penmanship, not only are they painstakingly copying a snippet of a Bible verse, but their teacher reminds them God delights in beauty and order.
Third-grade math is an occasion to observe patterns in multiplication. A jumble of numbers transforms into something with structure and reason, like God creating the universe out of chaos. It serves as a reminder that life is messy and tangled on our own, but when we live our life according to God’s plan, our life becomes ordered and meaningful.
Science in each grade provides ample occasions to learn about the beauty of God’s creation, Otto said. This year, third graders and up have the opportunity to spend a day at a nearby ranch to observe the wonder of nature on a larger scale.
When it comes to social studies at St. Mary, Caitlin Turbeville merges religion into history for her sixth- through eighth-grade students.
She encourages her students to look for God in the unfolding of history. “Where do we see Him?” she asks. Her purpose is to point to something higher than the actions and events of humankind as she teaches world, Texas, and American history.
She explains to her students that out of the chaos of revolution, God can bring good, like the birth of the United States. Divine providence works through every event, said Turbeville.
Heart of a saint
The halls of Holy Trinity Catholic School are filled with saints and future saints.
Each grade has a patron saint who stays with the class as they progress from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Above the doors of each classroom, the saint’s name and “pray for us” is written, and an icon or painting of the saint hangs on the wall inside the class.
Throughout the years, the students learn about the life and the virtues of their patron saint, and when the students graduate, they are given a keepsake of that saint, “so they can take that relationship wherever they go,” said Karen Ullman, principal of Holy Trinity.
A devotion to the saints is one of many ways the faith is practiced in the Grapevine school. “Honestly, our Catholic identity is so strong. It’s incredible,” Ullman said.
Last spring, Ullman observed faith in action in the fifth-grade class. After hearing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the students “told the teacher they had to do something to help,” she recalled.
The students came up with a plan to make thread bracelets, bookmarks, prayer rocks, and buttons encouraging others to pray for Ukraine. The students supplied the ideas, materials, and labor; the administration merely needed to unlock the door and set up a table.
With faculty permission, they came to school for a week at 6:45 a.m. to create the items. The next week they staffed a table at the carpool line, distributing the items and soliciting donations and prayers.
They raised more than $2,100, which they sent to a school in Poland that took in many Ukrainian refugee children.
“This news story turned into a lesson in compassion and helping others. It was a beautiful effort, and it was totally self-directed and planned,” said Ullman.
Raising financial and prayer support for Ukraine was just one example of students focused on the needs of others, said Ullman. “They are other-centered, community-oriented.”
At these and other diocesan Catholic schools, religion is not merely a class, but lessons of faith are incorporated into education in creative ways. Because at the end of the day, said Turbeville, the St. Mary teacher, “Our purpose is something higher.”