School becomes church for some students

Debbie Rowley, left, Peter O'Brien, Natalie Mahedem and Fr. Roger Keeler took part in a forum examining Catholic Education


Debbie Rowley, left, Peter O'Brien, Natalie Mahedem and Fr. Roger Keeler took part in a forum examining Catholic Education

November 28, 2011

Natalie Mahedem, a student at Austin O'Brien Catholic High School, has a firm belief in God although she and her family "never went to church, never prayed (and) never did anything Catholic" other than receiving a Catholic education.

"How is it that the relationship between my family, the Church and God is non-existent in my life yet I still have a firm belief in and trust in God?" the Grade 11 student asked.

"I have been fortunate to attend the schools I have attended here in Edmonton and if it weren't for these schools, I wouldn't know God," Mahedem answered. "The teachers I've had preach passion and faith through everything they do and I caught on to their love of God."

Mahedem was one of four panelists who addressed from their own perspective the "how" of Catholic education at an open forum at St. Michael-Resurrection Church Nov. 16.

It was the third forum at St. Michael-Resurrection Parish on Catholic education. Members of the parish, led by Father Roger Keeler, the pastor, organized the three sessions.

Mahedem said at school she and her peers were given many opportunities to become closer to God and to associate with his works. In junior high, for instance, they learned about how to lead a Christian life. "The teachers led by example and showed us what it's like to lead a positive life filled with God's love."

Mahedem's connection to her faith, however, hasn't been rooted with a parish. "At school I pray and learn about God but the only time I ever attend church is when I go with the school." The few times she has attended Mass in a parish she felt like an outsider.


The young woman says Church today is aimed more to previous generations. "I'm afraid that when I leave school in less than two years, I may lose my faith."

Panelist Debbie Rowley, principal of Austin O'Brien High, described today's Catholic schools as inclusive community builders, where all students are welcomed regardless of religious or ethnic background.

The task of Catholic educators is to help students construct their understanding of the religious foundations and traditions of the Catholic Church, Rowley said. "It involves the creation of an educational experience that is communal in nature - one that supports faith development through experience, question and a move to social action."

Peter O'Brien, whose three children have all attended Catholic schools in the St. Michael-Resurrection area, spoke briefly about the need for authentic Catholicism.

"We need more authentic Catholics," he said. "What I mean is we need more people just being Catholic and living an authentic Catholic life."

Being authentic doesn't mean being perfect. It means being humble and honest. "The best we can do to support authentic Catholic education is to model authentic Catholic life," O'Brien said.

Rowley said today parents send their children to Catholic schools for various reasons. "They believe in a faith-based education and want their child to develop values and a strong moral purpose."

Then there are those who send their children to Catholic schools for convenience. "We have a great reputation for academics and oh yes, we are in the neighbourhood."


Yet for many students, school is the Church, Rowley said. "The school provides them with the religious curriculum, prayer life, communal growth, opportunities to experience the sacraments and develop their own faith and spirituality."

A school principal for the past 15 years, Rowley said she has been blessed to be part of a formalized parish-school relationship that involves the parish and all the schools located in the parish.

This model, she said, was coordinated by a parish team that provided opportunities for schools and the parish to work together, strengthening the home, parish and school partnership.

The parish youth minister visited different schools and classes each week and provided social action opportunities and organized activities for students to partake in on weekends.

"If we want our young people to be involved then we need to encourage their involvement," she said. Student involvement and a student voice are essential to teaching youth in any endeavour.


At Austin O'Brien, students live out their faith through social action and service, which is part of the curriculum.

"They also have opportunities to work in the community with their peers to assist in local initiatives. They offer support to young students at Mother Teresa School and organize projects for the needy. And they have opportunities to plan celebrations and lead celebrations through music ministry."

Keeler, St. Michael-Resurrection's pastor, said Catholic schools enable others to experience life in Christ. Catholics are well positioned to do that because they have a strong sense of tradition, a strong connection with doctrine and an appreciation of the importance of maintaining continuity.

The word "Catholic," Keeler said, implies that we are characterized by radical openness. "We are open to truth and to the quest for truth. We are open to the way of Christ. We are open radically to the life that Christ gives us."