Faith and sacraments separate Alaska’s Catholic schools from the rest

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A solid education, strong discipline, small class sizes – these are some of the reasons parents in the Anchorage Archdiocese give for choosing Catholic school for their children.

But perhaps the primary motivation is faith.

REKINDLING FAMILY FAITH

For Chris Ori and his wife Robin, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in South Anchorage provides a solid Catholic background for their two children, and has enlivened the faith life of the entire family.

“I was raised Catholic,” said Ori, who now serves on the school board at the K-6 elementary as an engineering consultant. But as he grew older, he slipped away from his childhood faith.

Having his kids at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton “has reinvigorated my faith. It’s rekindled a fire.” And his wife Robin is now in the process of becoming Catholic.

Ori likes the Catholic school’s Gospel imperative of “putting others first.” It’s the antidote, he said, to the “me-me-me culture” of today’s society.

St. Elizabeth’s outreach to the community has inspired the whole family to get involved and stay involved, Ori said.

Out in the Mat-Su Valley, Our Lady of the Valley School offers a Catholic schooling option to those living in Wasilla, Palmer, Big Lake and Willow.

Alberta Melani has two grandchildren at the K-8th grade school, one in kindergarten and another in 6th grade. She laments the declining number of Catholics who attend Mass and wants to make sure her grandchildren don’t follow suit.

Melani’s two daughters both work in Catholic education, one a principal in California, one a teacher at Our Lady of the Valley.

“I want my children and grandchildren to know their faith,” she said. “I want well-formed consciences. I want a solid Catholic education.”

One complaint the grandmother has: in a church that encourages life and strong family values, she thinks it’s a shame that many large families are priced out of Catholic education. It’s a problem we need to solve, she said.

Carole and Charles Hart have four children at Holy Rosary Academy, a preschool through 12th grade independent Catholic school in Anchorage.

“Faith is very much the main reason we choose Holy Rosary,” Carole said.

“We love the dinner table talk about grace and the church fathers,” she said, adding she often learns from her own children and their reading books.

“And I love that our seventh grader has a Dominican priest as her theology teacher. I love that I go to daily Mass at my parish (Holy Family Cathedral) and I see the classroom teachers at Mass.”

She added that Holy Rosary “fosters growth in the domestic Church,” which is, of course, the church of the family and a child’s primary teacher.

CATHOLIC SCHOOL A COMMUNITY PILLAR

In Kodiak, Aida Hathaway enrolled five children over the years at St. Mary School, including twin boys who are now in 4th grade. She loves the school so much that when the family made a move to Nashville, one of the reasons for returning to Alaska was the little elementary on Kodiak Island.

St. Mary has rebounded in the past few years from economic and enrollment declines. Today, said principal Brian Cleary, enrollment is at 77 from preschool through 8th grade, up from 48 in 2013. Unique among the archdiocesan schools, St. Mary’s enrollment includes a fairly large non-Catholic contingent.

Yet, Hathaway said, “religion is very important” there and all students “learn from Jesus.”

When she looked into the school for her oldest daughter nearly two decades ago, she loved the atmosphere so much she said she would have taken on another part-time job to be able to put her in the school, then run and staffed by the Grey Nuns.

“You can see the love in our school,” Hathaway said.

PRIESTS & SACRAMENTS MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Dick and Lila Dickhaus have sent two children to Lumen Christi High School, a 7-12th grade school in Anchorage.

Lila said she sees Catholic education as “a legacy passed on of faith and truth.” It makes a difference in how people live the whole of their lives.

“Connecting faith with what matters in this crazy life of ours provides a difference in this adventure,” she said.

A weekly Mass is a given at all five schools, and that’s just the beginning of a wealth of devotions and sacramental opportunities, as well as a commitment to Christian works of mercy.

At Lumen Christi, principal Brian Ross said Father Tom Lilly “is celebrating daily Mass at 7:15 here at the school for anyone wanting to start the school day with the Eucharist.”

The school, with a current enrollment of 82, has a full time campus minister, Liz Loeffler, who is offering a Campus Ministry elective course this semester.

“The students in this elective meet during school hours twice a week to plan faith in action and outreach opportunities and organize liturgy, prayer, worship and fellowship programs for the school and for our faith community,” Ross said.

At Holy Rosary, with a current enrollment of 132, liturgical seasons throughout the year are marked by events like the Festival of Lessons and Carols during Advent and an Epiphany Concert.

Dominican Father Mark Francis Manzano serves as school chaplain and math teacher. The presence of a priest on campus for classes this year means the students have someone available for confession upon request, said principal Catherine Neumayr.

Joyce Lund, principal at Our Lady of the Valley, where enrollment has climbed to 72, said the addition of 2,700 square feet of additional class space through the donation of portables from the Anchorage School District has “opened all kinds of doors” for the growing school.

Letting students know that they live in “a global church” is important, Lund said. The students made 36 blankets this year for Father Michael Shields’ ministry in Magadan, Russia, and the priest has come to the school to share his work and faith with the students.

“Father Mike told the kids that one of their blankets went to a little girl who had no heat in her house,” said Lund.

Kathy Gustafson, principal at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, said students will soon listen to a panel of priests, sisters and deacons speak about their vocations to religious life and holy orders.

Students at St. Elizabeth’s are “encouraged to be life-long learners, following Christ’s message of service, compassion, courage and spirit,” Gustafson said.


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