Catholic education has a long history across the world, including in Alaska where students from varied background and faith traditions have received spiritual and academic guidance for several generations. In the Anchorage Archdiocese, families can choose from one of five Catholic schools.
But what about non-Catholics?
Like most Catholic schools across the nation, each of the schools within the archdiocese also educates non-Catholic students. This is done by fostering respectful dialogue and discussion when Catholic teaching and tradition is part of the curriculum.
‘NO CHILD LEFT OUT’
According to Lisa Orizotti, the first grade teacher at the K-6th grade St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Anchorage, the answer is simple: treat all students equally, regardless of their religion.
“Our purpose is to form all children in Jesus Christ,” Orizotti explained. “Just as Jesus didn’t discriminate, St. Elizabeth’s reaches out to everyone. You could say we practice ‘no child left out’ at St. Elizabeth’s in that we open our doors and hearts to children of any faith.”
School principal Jim Bailey says that most teachers and staff at St. Elizabeth don’t really know which students are Catholic which are not.
“Nearly every class has a few non-Catholics, but teachers and other students might not even recognize it, that’s how integrated our school is,” Bailey said.
At Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, 35 percent of students are non-Catholic. The school’s approach to these students is much the same as St. Elizabeth’s.
“Lumen builds on its Catholic foundation as a ministry to all students, regardless of particular background or faith,” said Principal John Harmon. “Lumen believes that its students may be at different places along the spectrum of faith and faith development. Whatever the current levels of … faith formation of incoming students, Lumen provides an educational environment rooted in the Catholic tradition that supports each student in their personal search for truth and meaning in life.”
Holy Rosary Academy also embrace non-Catholics, and has Mormon and evangelical Christian students attending the K-12th grade school.
“We teach virtues, and most families are happy about the lessons in living virtuously and charitably,” Principal Catherine Neumayr explained. “Our teachers seek to find common ground, and respect is a given in the classroom.”
The K-8th grade St. Mary’s School in Kodiak makes a point of celebrating diversity found in the student body, half of which is non-Catholic.
“Our focus in on Jesus Christ and his life. Most of these qualities can be found within other world religions,” Principal Brian Cleary said.
At Our Lady of the Valley School in Wasilla non-Catholics make up about 20 percent of the student body.
“We are respectful of all faiths and instill in our students the importance of living a Christian life of being kind, respectful, giving to others, being of service to others, being compassionate, and ministering to those in need, as well as instilling good morals and values,” said Karen Smith, the school’s administrative assistant.
TEACHING THE FAITH
It is one thing to provide a welcoming environment for non-Catholics, but how do educators approach those students when Catholic doctrine and sacraments are being taught in the classroom?
Lumen Christi teacher Bob McMorrow said students in his church history class are welcome to express differing views.
“Sometimes we do have disagreements, but students are encouraged to discuss different ideas with respect and with the common goal to seek truth,” McMorrow said. “When various ideas come up in class, I do not proclaim anyone wrong. We listen to ideas, I share the belief of the Catholic Church, and each individual is given the freedom to accept or deny what is shared.”
Holy Rosary’s John Haggard teaches eleventh and twelfth grade apologetics, a class that currently includes one non-Catholic student.
“Teaching students of different faiths has really been seamless,” Haggard observed. “Apologetics is centered on learning about the reasons for your faith, so the premise is not the church’s infallibility but premises known to all Christian faiths.
“Our students are interested in learning about the real reasons for their faith,” he added. “So if someone of another belief system disagrees, the response is ‘OK, but tell me why.’ Anyone using reason can take part in the discussion.”
Principal Neumayr says her students’ parents are welcome to disagree with the school’s teachings so long as it is done in the spirit of mutual respect.
“We understand and appreciate that parents are our students’ first educators,” she said.
Jim Bailey says St. Elizabeth provides religious instruction to all students, Catholic or not.
“Students who are non-Catholics attend religious classes along with Catholic students including preparation for First Reconciliation and First Communion in second grade,” he said.
Attending and participating in Mass also is open to non-Catholics at most area Catholic schools.
Karen Smith at Our Lady of the Valley school says students attend Mass every Friday, no exceptions.
“All students rehearse during the week for music for the upcoming Mass, as well as performing other duties such as being lectors, cantors, hospitality, gift bearers and altar servers,” she said.
The same is true at St. Mary’s.
“All students attend Mass weekly,” Cleary said. “Catholics and non-Catholics participate in the liturgy, petitions and giving of gifts.”
Holy Rosary accommodates non-Catholic students at Mass by offering choices, all of which respect Catholic customs and traditions, but don’t require active participation. For example, non-Catholics are asked to process to the front of the chapel during the reception of Holy Communion, and they can either accept a special blessing or just walk reverently through the line and back to the pew, according to Principal Neumayr.
WHY NON-CATHOLICS CHOOSE CATHOLIC ED
Given the focus on religious instruction and spiritual development, some question why non-Catholic parents would send their children to a parochial school.
“We are recognized for our academic excellence,” Bailey noted. “We are also known for our acceptance and inclusion of every student and Christian attitude for others.”
Lumen Christi’s Harmon agrees, and believes parents choose Lumen because of the level of academics, small class sizes and “the core values and virtues taught at the school,” he said. “These parents see great benefit in Lumen’s community environment where their children can discuss and live out the key values often lost in the public school system.”
Our Lady of the Valley has a similar view.
“Parents choose to enroll based on smaller class sizes, which allows for more independent instruction time, and also for the structured environment and rigorous academic instruction,” Smith said. She also cites the school’s reputation within the community as a draw for families.
Then there is always the possibility that students will learn enough about the faith at school to want to become Catholic.
Peggy Dennehy is St. Elizabeth’s administrative assistant. In her observation, some non-Catholic students end up inspiring their families to join the faith.
“They take what they learn here and bring it home,” she observed. “The family ends up becoming Catholic all because of what started at our school. It’s wonderful.”