Rocky Mountain High

My spirit was quite high when I left Denver recently, and it was not because I was in a plane flying over the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. It was because I had the pleasure to attend a parish elementary school gala in Denver, Colo. Typically, an elementary school fundraising dinner is wonderful for the school families in that parents get together, the students get to showcase some talents, and some money is raised to help with needed repairs, upgrades or scholarships. What I experienced was a whole new ballgame!

The Our Lady of Lourdes Gala was a big-time affair. The gymnasium was transformed into what looked like a formal ballroom. Tables packed the floor to accommodate over 300 guests, several of whom were in black ties and gowns. Silent auction items lined one wall and a stage centered the other wall, flanked by pictures of the 231 students.

That sounds just fine, but not like that big of a deal. However, it is the back story and the speeches that lifted it to a whole different level than your usual parish school fundraiser. First off, it must be noted that seven years ago, when enrollment reached 90 students, Lourdes was earmarked for closure. Then-Auxiliary Bishop James Conley suggested to Archbishop Charles Chaput that they try one more year with a new young principal at the helm. This young woman had ideas and a passion for education in the fullest sense of the word – even though she was just starting to learn what that meant.

In the intervening years, the implementation of a classical, or Catholic liberal arts curriculum re-made the school. Enrollment has swelled, donations have poured in to support the burgeoning success, and now Our Lady of Lourdes just announced a second campus opening in the Fall of 2018. The support that has enveloped this school many outsiders might think comes simply from the success of the enrollment growth and increasing test scores. In fact, what the community of Denver knows and sees is that it has nothing to do with numbers, but everything to do with a new joy that imbues the student body, and their families – a joy rooted in a deep Christ-centered spirit and a school program rooted in forming the imagination, mind and heart, based on the great stories, questions and ideas of mankind.

The spirit of the students derives from the greatness of those classic poems, epic stories, and discovery of God’s creation that they encounter. They are reading heroic epics, not diaries of wimpy kids! Of course they are going to be more excited for what school has to offer, and life, and eternity!

We know that when one part of the body regains health, so improves the rest of the body. So, not surprisingly, the health of the school ended up going hand-in-hand with an increased health of the parish. All systems started to work together. The school supporting the parish. The pastor giving it his all for the school. The liturgy transforming to align more with the school program.  Parish programs echoing the school’s philosophy. And, consequently, the parish has grown as well.  In fact, parish family registration has tripled! The spirit keeps spreading.

Back to the gala. This was such an energetic, powerful, joyful and wonderful evening because of what I described above – the lofty spirit of a community which is so in sync with the Holy Spirit and his workings in the Church for the last two millennia, not just the last two generations. To top it off, Bishop James Conley, now the bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., gave the keynote address. He lauded up and down the brilliant application of the time-honored principles of education by Rosemary Vander Weele who has shepherded the school’s transformation, and Fr. Brian Larkin who has been the perfect pastor to make this all happen. Over the past few years, they have formed what Bishop Conley thinks is paramount to any school, a faculty of friends. The Bishop attributes his own conversion to a beautiful mix of the formation of his mind in the classics, the expansion of his imagination in great poetry and art, and the movement of his heart to Christ in the relationships forged in friendships, in a community like Our Lady of Lourdes.

Closing the evening, Fr. Brian summed up really clearly why his school is successful – meaning that it is converting hearts in the midst of joy. He reminded the crowd that as friendships need to be based on the highest and best things, so does the culture in the school. This ultimately derives from the principles of the schools and the families. They are in cooperation to form these young people who will go out into one of the most difficult societies in human history – it is largely a culture that does not believe in right and wrong and does not know what marriage is. How more fundamentally off can you get than that? And this is the world their students will meet and need to evangelize. Fr. Brian said, “It warms my heart to look out on my congregation and see the children and to know that they have a place where they are going to be told there IS truth, there IS right and wrong, and there IS a God who loves them.”

Father Brian closed by recalling a quote from St. Augustine that, not surprisingly, gets right to the heart of the matter. Referencing (even in those ancient days) the society’s penchant for caring most about their villa, clothes, parties or jewelry, Augustine chides this attitude as short-sighted, wrong-headed, and ultimately sad. “They are more pained if their villa is poor than if their life is bad, as if man’s greatest good is to possess everything good, except himself!” He repeated this twice, thankfully! It was a little hard to grasp the import of that statement the first time through, but then it really hit home, and cemented the idea of why we do what we do, why we write tuition and donation checks – “the real point of education is to become good.” A faculty of friends wills the good for others, and, in turn, becomes good. In this increasing goodness, the necessary effect is more abundant joy and love for our students, and their families. That is what a school should be about!

All that, and I also had a delightful afternoon with the brand new superintendent of the diocese – a wonderful, Faith-filled man with high ideals. See why I am high on Denver?

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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