Diocese of Ogdensburg

The Roman Catholic Church in Northern New York

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A New Beginning
Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ
Superintendent of Schools

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Where has the summer gone? It does not seem possible that schools will open in less than two weeks! Yes, “Tempus fugit” – Time flies!  Although summer does not officially end until September 23, for students returning to schools in our area, it unofficially ends with the beginning of the school year that is just around the corner.

New beginnings are important. Often they are accompanied by renewed enthusiasm, refreshed dreams and the promise of new possibilities. I must confess, however, that my memories of a new school year also included concerns about who my teachers would be and if I would be in the same classes as my friends!

As I write this article, I am anticipating a meeting with some of our teachers. They are a special group of teachers who are beginning their first year in the classroom or, if not their first year teaching, their first year working in a Catholic school.  The New Teacher Orientation will include the unique character of a Catholic school.

What is the purpose of a Catholic school? “Exploring purpose is the fast track to understanding anything. What is purpose? It’s the reason for which something exists.  The mission of a Catholic school is to form disciples – to teach students to know Jesus,  love Jesus, follow Jesus, and serve Jesus by making him known to the rest of the world” (Teach, Lead, Serve: The Ministry of Teaching, Matthew Kelly).

Our Catholic schools offer quality academic programs, but quality academic programs are available in public schools as well.  Our schools’ programs address the whole person, but more and more public schools are addressing components of the whole person, the most notable addition being their acknowledged commitment to character education and ethical behavior.  Our Catholic schools are often close knit “communities” where a safe, secure and orderly environment support student learning.  Many public school districts where our schools are located are relatively small and offer the same benefits. Thus, the question becomes what is distinctive about a Catholic school.  What does the Catholic school offer that is unique and proper to its mission that cannot be found in a public school? 

The answer to that question resides in a “who” rather than a “what.” The most important aspect of a Catholic school is its foundation in Christ. Our schools are primarily places where students meet Christ.  “. . . Every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Benedict XVI, Address to U.S. Catholic Educators, 2008). From Christ flows the unique marks of a Catholic school, namely a supernatural vision of life, an awareness of the dignity of the human person, the personal witness of teachers and administrators, the experience of a faith community and a curriculum that integrates the Catholic worldview throughout the academic program and the culture of the school.

The history of Catholic education in America is a story of generosity and sacrifice. So many people have given generously and sacrificed so much to make the reality of Catholic schools a reality. This generosity and sacrifice continue in our time through devoted pastors and parishioners who support our schools, parents who assume the responsibility of tuition as opposed to a tuition-free education in the public system and our dedicated administrators and teachers whose commitment is accompanied by a personal financial sacrifice.

Our Catholic schools are integral to the mission of the Church to form disciples who proclaim the Good News.  Their effectiveness in this mission relies largely on the teachers, administrators and staff who serve in our schools. “Conduct is always much more important than speech; this fact becomes especially important in the formation of students. The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be lived and imitated. For it will then be seen as something reasonable and worthy of being lived, something concrete and realizable” (Lay Catholics in Schools: Witness to the Faith, Sacred Congregation of Catholic Education.)

I am most appreciative to the teachers, administrators and staff who support our schools not only by their professional competence but especially by their personal witness to the Gospel. May God bless their efforts during the new school year.

The ideas and values we want our young people to experience in our schools are not abstractions. They are found in a person, Jesus Christ. A new school year is greeted with renewed enthusiasm, refreshed dreams and promises of new possibilities because Christ graces us with new life and hope. Enthusiasm abounds because hope abounds when Christ is in our midst.