Two hundred years ago when Catholic education got its start in St. Louis, certainly the classroom experience was a bit rudimentary.
Our first educators, many of them women religious such as St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, didn’t have much when they came to the New World. Their work was considered by many a heroic response to the needs of that day — often educating the poor and marginalized of society. In those early days, there was no formal teacher training, the resources were few and the sacrifices great.
Their hard work ultimately laid a solid foundation for bringing Catholic education into the modern era.
“This is what Catholic schools are all about … encountering each other, faith, community and living the Catholic life.”
In 2018, we are reminded of these sacrifices. As described in this edition of the St. Louis Review, students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles — where St. Rose Philippine Duchesne started the first free school West of the Mississippi in 1818 — have been incorporating lessons into class to learn exactly how those early days were. Students kneaded tough dough into less-than-flavorful sea biscuits that she would have eaten, learned about how she scrambled to obtain passports to America and saved every bit of money she could knowing she wouldn’t have financial support once she arrived in the New World.
Those stories must be preserved, as Sister Margaret Munch, RSCJ, said, because they are “an inspiration for us to go and do likewise, to serve others, to have a life of prayer with God, and to share that love with everybody that we can possibly influence.”
Two hundred years later, the inspiration lives on in our Catholic elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. At St. Louis University — another school that started here 200 years ago — the Billiken Teacher Corps hosted several elementary schools for a Catholic School Olympics to kick off Catholic Schools Week.
As Billiken teacher Catherine Gilmore said, “This is what Catholic schools are all about … encountering each other, faith, community and living the Catholic life.” The Olympics showed the students “they’re part of something greater — the Joy of the Gospel,” Billiken teacher Corps director Father Ronny O’Dwyer, SJ, added.
It’s a timeless message with which those early pioneers certainly would agree. While Catholic schools today are better equipped with the latest technology, teachers have more educational training and the academics more advanced, the message that we’re part of something bigger resonates just as much now as it did then.
The building of a faith community and our encounter with Jesus in our Catholic schools are what truly matter here. The sacrifices that have been made in the past 200 years reiterate the importance of that then, just as much as now.