Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 2, 2000
District launches school chaplains
High schools give 10 laity full-time job of deepening Catholic presence
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
If you ask the administrators of Edmonton Catholic Schools what the definition of a chaplain is, they won't be able to give a straight answer.
"We're going to have 10 different pictures of what a chaplain is," said Patrick McDonald, consultant with the division's religious education service. "They'll each bring something different to the school they're at."
Dubbed Ambassadors of Hope, Edmonton Catholic Schools' new chaplaincy program will see a chaplain in each of its high schools. One of its main goals is to recover the Catholic identity in the schools. Not that the identity was missing, it was a little buried and needed to be brought to the forefront, said McDonald.
This is the first time in the division's history that all its high schools will have chaplains. Father Michael Troy, the well-known and much-loved chaplain of St. Joseph's High School was the lone high school chaplain, but he is only able to do the job part-time.
Aided by provincial funding, McDonald hopes the three-year program will continue well beyond that time.
The chaplains are all certified teachers who have been students of Newman Theological College. And they're all laypeople, which is sometimes a surprise for staff members and students who expect chaplains to wear a Roman collar.
But aside from hearing Confessions and celebrating Mass, they play the role of a spiritual counsellor much like a priest would. The chaplains enhance the Christian characteristics of the school through faith development, prayer and celebrations, faith promotion, spiritual counselling and liasing with the Catholic community.
"By improving our culture, we can improve the way we do things," McDonald said. "And our culture is our Catholic faith. We need to bring that to the forefront of everything we do."
Bernie MacGregor, a graduate and now chaplain of St. Joseph's High School, added, "We have to have every kid say I go to this school because it's a Catholic school, not that I go to this school and it happens to be Catholic.
"That's what our goal is this year, to have our students mindful that they are in a Catholic school."
MacGregor is a bit of a "religious schmoozer." And he doesn't mind the label one bit. He knows how to get students to sit down and talk to him. He offers them candy.
It even works for the adults. They unwrap the candy and before you know it, a conversation breaks out.
If candies won't do it, MacGregor has a filing cabinet full of other snacks, rice cakes and nuts 'n' bolts.
MacGregor's office is also right next to one of the learning centres, where students gather to study or work on class assignments. He puts a tank which houses two lizards by the window. When curious students stop to check out his pets, he waves and invites them in.
He roams the hallways and strikes up conversations with students. He sits with them in the lunch area. He knows he won't be able to meet every one of the school's 900 students, but that doesn't stop him from trying.
"The frustration I run into is that you want to be everything to everyone," MacGregor said. "And that's not possible."
But he likes the school environment - the Indidivualized Self-Paced Learning Program, the presence of Troy, the diversity of students. It all adds life to the school.
It's all about relationship building, said MacGregor. Whether it be a relationship with Christ or with each other, everyone needs someone.
The father of four and grandfather of one said he has been through it all from family problems to personal conflicts. When he says he understands what a student is gong through, he really means it because he's been through most of that angst and feelings of abandonment.
As a chaplain, MacGregor is a resource not only for students but also for staff. He would like to involve the staff in more faith-based activities, not leaving it to the responsibility of the religious education department.
The other chaplains in the district are Gilles Denis, J.H. Picard; Brian Ferguson, St. Peter Adult Learning Centre; Ed Jean, Archbishop MacDonald; Stan Kiryczuk, Vegreville; Karen Sayko, Archbishop O'Leary; Sandra Talarico, Louis St. Laurent; Ron Zacharko, St. Francis Xavier; Ruth Wasylenko, Holy Trinity and Michael Merrier, who will contribute the native spirituality pespective to the program.
Wasylenko is in the midst of reviving Holy Trinity's chapel, which has been used as an office. The frosty windows and skylight make it the perfect environment for liturgical celebrations, prayer and meditation, something she hopes to teach the students.
It's only been a month since the start of the school year and some of the school's 700 students are already eager to help their new chaplain.
Wasylenko has a handful of students wanting to help organize the chapel. Many of them have passed by her office in the chapel asking what she teaches and sometimes coming in to talk. Students are also interested in seeking ways they can help the community.
Wasylenko, a former St. Francis of Assisi special education teacher with 20 years of experience, said her job at Holy Trinity has been easy so far. The school already has several ongoing spiritual activities, including morning prayer, seasonal celebrations and religious retreats.
Wasylenko admits that students may shy away when they hear words like prayer and Jesus, but she also knows that students have a "spiritual eagerness" and want to know more about their faith.
That's where she comes in. She wants to help make the classrooms a spiritual learning environment. Wasylenko will also try to have "a centre of beauty" in each classroom, which could mean a corner table with an Advent wreath. It will be a reminder to the students of the environment they are in and that "we are spirits of Christ."
Wasylenko will also go into classrooms and try to incorporate the teachings of Jesus with the class subject. Last week, one English class discussed capital punishment and Wasylenko brought a Christian perspective to the topic.
"I'm trying to make more public our identity as Catholics in a time when people are confusing Catholic education with public."