St. John's Catholic School in Beloit, Kan. is striving to revitalize Catholic culture by promoting openness to priestly and religious vocations among its students.
“The teachers care about us and our faith and what we're going to do when we get older,” senior Leandra Silsby told CNA Nov. 19, “so they help us be disciplined in our faith.”
“In our religion class sometimes we get to go to Adoration, and that's the best time to just sit there and pray, and focus on our vocations, on what God's plan is for our lives.”
St. John's school opened in 1879 and has managed to keep its doors open for 134 years, while Catholic schools across the nation have shuttered due to low enrollment and economic woes.
Andrew Niewald, a theology teacher at the high school, attributes this staying power to a “striving” to “teach Catholicism as it was meant to be taught.”
Niewald himself graduated from St. John's in 1998 and said that the past 10 years have seen a marked improvement in the school, which has allowed it to maintain its presence at a cost of only $700 in tuition per child per year.
He told CNA Nov. 19 that the school is three years into a “Great Books” and integrated humanities program.
Four years ago the school hired Patrick McCloskey, author of 2010's “The Street Stops Here,” as a consultant, who advised them to adopt the Great Books program.
“If we present this unapologetic approach to Catholicism to our kids in our school, think of the possibilities and the impact we'll have on our culture,” Niewald expressed.
He praised the new program for teaching kids “how to think,” and not just “what to think.”
“It's even better than we thought it would be, as far as what our students walk away with.”
The new curriculum was enabled in no small part by Julius Capital Partners, with whom St. John's partnered to develop long-term funding solutions for the school, which is sustained by a town of only 3800 people.
Niewald noted that the school is trying to give students “an experience of the faith,” rather than solely intellectual formation.
To that end, on Friday Nov. 16, St. John's high school students traveled to Lincoln, Neb. to pray at an abortion clinic there and to visit both a seminary and a convent.
Leandra Silsby reported this was her third time praying at the abortion clinic with her classmates.
“It was a great experience because a lot of us would be too afraid to go by ourselves, but going as a whole school gives us the experience of showing our faith and that we are pro life.”
Sophomore Garrett Mischler told CNA on the way back from Lincoln that he appreciated the visit to St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb. because “it was really interesting to see how normal these young men who are going to become priests are.”
Mischler said that regarding his vocation, while “everyone sort of leans towards the married life, I'm going to keep and open mind and pray, and try and see exactly what God wants me to do before I make any solid decisions.”
St. John's atmosphere has already fostered committed discernment from one of its alumni. Justin Gengler graduated from the school and is now studying for the Diocese of Salina at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.
My time at St. John's “was definitely planting the seeds that are coming into fruition at this time in my life,” he told CNA Nov. 16. “I have an openness to God's will that was fostered during my time at St. John's.”
The school is committed to forming the whole person, and not solely the intellect of their students. In February some 24 kids from the school will travel to Washington D.C. for the March for Life, the seventh year St. John's has participated in the march.
Niewald teaches theology of the body to seniors at the school, and the juniors have a class on apologetics for three quarters. This year a Jehovah's Witness comes in once a week, and the students learn about his faith, and then start dialoguing and debating with him.
Last year, Niewald said, a Baptist pastor was the guest. At the end of the year, four students got up and debated the doctrine of the Eucharist with him in a public forum, and even took questions from his congregation.
“They had to come up with answers on the fly, and this to me is Catholic education,” Niewald said.
For the last quarter, the juniors take a class called “Marriage, Dating, and Family Life.” There they learn about chivalry, courting, country swing and line dancing, and “practical means of living their relationship.” These are topics that Niewald characterized as “necessary in Catholic culture, in a Catholic worldview.”
Niewald noted that “we had three families move here just this year for the school,” and prior to that families from both Idaho and Oklahoma had immigrated for the sake of sending their kids to St. John's.
“At St. John’s Catholic School, we take great pride in the fact that we ensure that the whole student is being educated,” principal Marcy Kee told CNA.
“It is important that we challenge our students not only to grow academically, socially, but spiritually as well, which I believe is the most important component in developing the whole student.”
“We can give our students all the pieces of the puzzle they need to be successful in today’s world, but their success in life will ultimately depend upon the relationship they have with God.”