Catholic teachers model faith, service and academic excellence for pupils

There were more nuns, brothers and priests teaching when Duane Schafer, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Wash., attended Catholic schools in the 1950s. He has seen that shift since becoming a Catholic educator 44 years ago. 

“The religious communities basically stepped back in most places for a variety of reasons, and the laity have become the primary educators,” he said. 

According to the National Catholic Education Association, in the past decade, lay faculty in Catholic schools in the United States increased from 93 percent to 96.3 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. 

What hasn’t changed, Schafer told Our Sunday Visitor, is the strong Catholic identity of a Catholic-based education that helps children to be formed in understanding and integrating the Gospel message in their lives, coming together in community and reaching out to others. 

Like other administrators across the country, Schafer notes it takes the right kind of person to serve what many Catholic educators consider a ministry. 

“I want that person to be very competent and skilled as an educator and to really understand the curriculum, the methodology and that each child is an individual,” he said. “And then a good Catholic school teacher needs deep faith and spirituality, and to be a model of a good Catholic Christian. They have to live that faith every day and be a model of Christ for those children and within those communities.” 

There are more than 151,473 teachers serving more than 2 million students in 6,980 Catholic schools in the United States. Here are some of their stories.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. 

Sister teaches pupils what word ‘serve’ truly means

Students at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, Ohio, are required to perform 60 hours of service, and the projects they do, Sister Mary Ann Mehling told OSV, give them opportunities to see God in other people. 

“We are invited to be Christ in the world today, so they experience what that means and carry that out,” she said. 

Sister Mary Ann, 75, is a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a teaching order based in Monroe, Mich. She has been a Catholic educator for 51 years and currently runs the service program at Gilmour, a boarding and day school administered by the Brothers of Holy Cross. Projects include serving the poor, inner-city volunteering with Catholic Worker projects in Cleveland, and humanitarian trips to Honduras twice a year. 

She also teaches a class on social justice that in the second semester sends students out to improve situations they identify. In one recent project, they interviewed people at a shelter, learned about welfare programs, and helped residents to plant a garden at FAITH House, a transitional home for women near Cleveland. They filmed the project for a presentation. 

Service puts faith into action, something that didn’t always happen in past generations of Catholic education, she noted. 

“You learned what you were supposed to do, took a test and got a grade,” Sister Mary Ann said. “But you had no idea what the word ‘serve’ really meant.” 

Student service changes her, too, she told OSV. 

“I have become more aware that we can’t say I’m too old, or I’ve done my share,” she said. “We don’t come to a limit. We are called to keep making the world better. So many people need somebody to be there for them.”

Faith, school’s support sustains teacher

Kolleen Murray had a degree in business and worked in banking when she decided to go back to college to become a Catholic educator. 

“I was volunteering in my children’s classrooms at a Catholic school and I wanted more of what I saw,” she said. “The teachers’ ministry was so inspiring to me that I went back to school because of them.” 

Murray, 50, is one of 12 current National Catholic Educators of the Year, recognition given by the National Catholic Education Association, and she represents five Western states. She has been a teacher for 12 years and currently teaches an eighth-grade class at All Saints Catholic High School in Spokane, Wash. 

And it began, she said, with somewhat of a miracle. 

Murray was hired in May 2000, and in June, she wrecked on a bike, sustaining a traumatic brain injury that landed her in the hospital for two weeks and in rehabilitation for months. During that time, teachers brought food and cleaned her house. Kathy Hicks, her principal, came to walk with her arm in arm. 

Kolleen Murray
Kolleen Murray is one of 12 current National Catholic Educators of the Year.

“I told her that she needed to hire someone else,” Murray said. “But she told me that she would teach my classes, and her colleagues would teach my classes, until I got better. That is the miracle of this ministry, that Kathy would not hire someone else. I came to this ministry with a very grateful heart. Can you imagine so much support and so much love? It was beautiful.” 

Murray could teach for only two hours each morning when classes resumed, and by October, her strength returned. 

“The students knew from Day One that I had a brain injury, and that it would be we as a community, we as the body of Christ, that would facilitate the learning,” she said. 

Murray treats her classes as a “come-as-you-are party” where everyone is welcome, no matter what. 

“They know that someone will help you if you’re having a bad day,” she said. “We create that safe environment and we are growing and learning that we are not all on top every day, but we will show up. Life is a come-as-you-are party.” 

Murray and her students reach out to the community with a Communion service at a nearby nursing home, serve at Christ’s Kitchen for women coming off homelessness or addictions, planted spring bulbs at a subsidized housing complex, and organized a clothing exchange. 

“Our standards are high,” she said about Catholic education. “We model not of this world. It is a model of true servanthood and we are greater as the body of Christ than as we are apart.” 

When the students returned from Christmas break, they filmed a documentary completing the sentence “I experienced Jesus’ love when … .” One finished it with “when my mom and dad got along over Christmas.” Another said it was “when I was on top of a mountain and looked down.” 

“Pretty soon, I felt God’s goose bumps,” Murray said. “That happens to me just about every day as my kids experience God.”

Longtime educator nurtures pupils’ spirits through service

On a recent Friday, teacher Rose Mischke and about 20 students from St. Jerome Catholic School in Phoenix, Ariz., got out of class early and spent four hours with two refugee families that they “adopted.” 

Mischke
Teacher Rose Mischke and her students with one of the refugee families the class has adopted. Courtesy of Rose Mischke

They shopped for paper products and toiletries for the parents and five children from Iraq, played soccer with the teens and their father, and played games with the youngest kids. When the ice cream man came through the neighborhood, the students bought something for everybody. 

They also visited a family of parents and four kids from the Congo, who had spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Rwanda. When one student gave the mom a sack of potatoes, the woman hugged her. 

“Sometimes you feel like you’re Superman,” Mischke said. 

Those simple acts and more are part of the Catholic spirit that she nurtures in her students at St. Jerome, where she has an eighth-grade homeroom, teaches religion and teaches math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Mischke, 62, has taught at the same school for 40 years. 

“The service work enriches the children’s lives and my main theme is about service,” she said. 

Mischke helps students to stage an annual Mexican dinner and accompanying raffle that last year raised $40,000 for the local St. Vincent de Paul Society. 

“Every year, the same people donate because they know it goes to good use. One guy gave us 200 pounds of cheese and 200 pounds of beans,” she said. “And the kids have to do the dinner themselves, so it’s really living their faith.” 

The school is involved with a parish project that collects and redistributes household items, toys and other goods that someone else can use. So there were things on hand one afternoon when Mischke encountered a homeless woman outside the school. When she said she had a job interview and needed help, Mischke sent her to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, but when Mischke went back inside the school, she realized that the shop was close to closing time. 

“I found some extra sheets, food products that people had donated, and within 10 minutes, my kids were running down the street trying to find this lady,” she said. 

They couldn’t, but they later found her praying in the chapel. 

“All of a sudden, she was there, and when they gave her all this stuff, she started crying,” she said. “These are the kinds of things that happen, and you can’t say it’s luck. I believe that everything happens for a purpose. We talk about how God closes one window and opens another.” 

She has seen how Catholic education influences what students can become. One girl founded a high school club to teach English to refugee families. Another went on to teach at a public school and organized his own Mexican dinner fundraiser to purchase eye glasses for needy students. 

“I know that this [service] is working,” she said. “They are taking what they learned here and carrying it into their formative years and their adult years. You can see how it carries on.” 

Mischke had an uncle who was a missionary priest, and an aunt was a nun who taught in Chicago. 

“I was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, and my only desire was to teach in a Catholic school,” she said.

Family atmosphere suits Catholic principal

It’s easy for Kathy Lorince to experience the familylike atmosphere that she treasures at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Stuttgart, Ark. — there are only 50 students and five teachers for pre-K through sixth grade. 

Lorince
Kathy Lorince, principal of Holy Rosary Catholic School in Stuttgart, Ark.

The school is so small, she said, “You get to know every child in the school and their families. You can really spend time with them and you can see them grow.” 

Lorince, 50, is the principal and also teaches a combined class of seven first-graders and four second-graders. She taught special education in a public school for 16 years before coming to Holy Rosary 13 years ago. She made the change when her husband’s cousin, the late Father John Albert Janesko of Our Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish, recruited her. The principal at that time wanted to get back into the classroom. 

Lorince converted to Catholicism after her son Alan was born in 1991. Her husband David is Catholic, and she wanted to feel comfortable raising Alan in the Church. He also attended Holy Rosary school. 

“I love being a Catholic school teacher because, obviously, you can talk about God and share your faith,” she told OSV. “It’s good to be able to tell children about Jesus and what he did for us.” 

The young students participate in several service programs in their delta town. They pick up in the community’s “Rid Litter Day,” visit a nursing home, collect for the local food bank, raise money for a pet shelter and have collected coats and toys for other children.

 “We teach about living the Gospel, to be like Jesus and do what he would do, ” Lorince said. “He shared whatever he had, and we share, too.” 

The children help Lorince deepen her own faith, she said, when she witnesses theirs growing in little ways, like being spontaneous in prayer and praying for others. She also sees their kindness when she “teaches up” to the class and the second-graders help the first-graders learn at a higher level. 

“That’s one of the joys of teaching a combined class,” she said. “You learn to become more of a family.”

Washington couple chooses life in Catholic education

Sean and Andi Kane grew up in strong Catholic families but neither attended Catholic schools. Nor did they have plans to become Catholic school teachers when they enrolled in Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. 

Andi and Sean Kane
Andi and Sean Kane teach in Catholic schools in Spokane, Wash. Courtesy of the Kanes

That changed when they experienced the Jesuit presence on campus and the sense of community. They were affected, too, in their sophomore year when Andi and others founded a musical theater program for a nearby Catholic school. 

Sean later joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Connecticut. Andi worked with the Alliance for Catholic Education through the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., and ended up teaching at a Catholic school in San Antonio. 

“Both programs really got us sold on Catholic education,” Sean said. “And since I kind of liked Andi, I moved to Texas.” 

They returned to Spokane four years ago and were married in 2009. Now Sean, 29, is the choir director at Gonzaga Preparatory School, grades 9 to 12. He also teaches band programs at Catholic elementary schools. Andi, 28, is assistant principal and teaches music and choir at St. Aloysius Gonzaga School, which has grades K-8. 

Both schools are in the Diocese of Spokane, which has three high schools and 13 elementary schools. The 4,500 students have opportunities to live the Gospel in a number of service projects such as raising money and goods for Catholic Charities’ ministries for parents, and a men’s drop-in center. 

The Kanes use their musical talents to involve students in other ways to serve. Sean takes the choir to nursing homes, hospitals and a food pantry. Andi’s students perform at retirement communities and church events. 

“A few years ago my junior high choir started singing at funerals in our community,” she said. “It’s nice for the families, and the students get to reverently provide that part of a ministry. It gives them a great perspective to see death as a whole circle. They are not just singing a song. They see that when they are singing, people respond emotionally, and they see the value of what they can give with their gifts.” 

Teaching music at a Catholic school goes beyond composition and performance. 

“A good public school choral educator is able to do the same music, for instance Mozart’s Gloria, or Ave Maria, because they’re classic pieces of literature,” Sean said. “But I can go deeper doing it at Mass, and on our faith journey we can discuss what it means to students. We can bring out the faith and passion in the music. I feel blessed to be able to present my faith through music.” 

Andi called teaching in a Catholic school “a life that you are choosing.” “You are enhanced by it, and strengthened and challenged by it,” she said. 

Sean credits his students for his motivation to be a better educator and to be more involved in the community. 

“The kids need a person to be a good example,” he said. “That takes faith out from just going to church and making it about me and God. That’s a big part of my faith — to be able to share it with my students.” 

The couple is expecting their first child, a daughter, in April. And yes, Andi said, “She’s going to go to Catholic school.”

For teacher, working at Catholic schools is ‘a noble vocation’

Julie Dwyer grew up with a Catholic education, but for the first 10 years of teaching, she taught in public schools. 

“I was very content, but when our children were about to enter school, I thought it was a conflict of interest for them to attend a Catholic school when I was teaching in a public school. So I resigned,” she said. “Then it was a gift that an opening came up at St. Boniface Elementary School.” 

She was there for 12 years and now teaches junior high reading and language arts at Pope John XXIII Central Catholic High School in Elgin, Neb. There are 91 students, with 15 in the graduating class. 

Dwyer
Julie Dwyer, teacher at Pope John XXIII Central Catholic High School in Elgin, Neb. Courtesy photo

Dwyer, 56, has been teaching for 28 years. 

“It is a noble profession,” she said, “and when you go into a Catholic school, it takes it to a noble vocation. The public school in town does an excellent job and is a great school. But here, there are more than core academics. What counts for myself, my family and close friends is the spirituality, the love, the values and services at a Catholic school.” 

The students put their faith into action by participating in several outreaches such as packaging food for Mercy Meals that are distributed globally, working in a mission house and raising funds for local charities. 

“It’s not just Catholic social justice,” principal Betty Getzfred said. “The whole idea is having kids learn that our faith is all about service. It’s important for the kids to be involved in this whole idea of stewardship.” 

Those kinds of projects and “planting the seeds of faith,” Dwyer said, will help the students’ “faith to blossom when they get out into the world.” 

Msgr. James Gilg, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha, taught Dwyer in high school. 

“She is a very dedicated teacher, full of integrity and representative of the best of what a small community can produce in terms of people and teachers,” he told OSV. 

Elgin, population 800, has an agricultural-based economy. Dwyer and her husband Mark, a cattle rancher, grew up on ranches outside of town and met in school. Dwyer took a pay cut when she left the public school, but, she said, “We’re all in the same boat with the economy, but we manage.” 

What’s more important than material rewards, she added, is teaching “from a Christ-centered discipline that comes from the love of Jesus.”

Principal uses lessons sisters taught him in school to help students grow in holiness

John Cominsky was nervous when he went to confession at Trinity Catholic High School in Camp Hill, Pa. Face to face with the priest, he smiled, the priest smiled back, then silence. 

“You’re not Catholic, are you?” the priest asked the ninth-grader. 

Cominsky said no, and that he was afraid to tell the nun who ran his class. 

“We’ll just sit and we’ll make it look good,” the priest said. 

Cominsky
John Cominsky, principal of St. Joseph School in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Cominsky, 44, converted to Catholicism at age 17, studied Scripture in college and returned to Trinity where he taught Scripture, morality, social studies and history for 17 years. He teaches courses on the Gospels and an introduction to theology at Mount St. Mary College in Emmitsburg, Md., and this school year he became principal of St. Joseph School in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for grades K-8. 

“It’s hard for me to state what Trinity and the example of the sisters did in my life,” he said. “It was the first time I ever saw religion integrated into daily life. Classes began with prayer, Mass was built into the calendar, and it was all a very powerful example of living the Gospel.” 

Cominsky credits discipline, structure and high expectations for the high academic quality in Catholic schools. 

“But ultimately, that’s not the reason we exist,” he said. “Catholic teachers help students to work toward their sanctification and their growth in holiness. We help to evangelize those who come to us from other faith traditions or from no faith traditions.” 

His school’s motto is “Learning to Serve” and several programs put that into action. A new one is a smaller version of The Thon, a 12-hour student-generated dance marathon he moderated at Trinity. Last year it raised $43,000 to benefit families with children being treated for cancer at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. 

“We try to teach kids that their gifts and talents come from God and are best used in the service of other people,” he said. “I think they really get it.” 

At one time, the religious provided that leadership, and that, he said “was a lot easier if you were a sister, a priest or a Christian brother.” 

“The Catholic school identity is now to a large extent in the hands of the laypeople,” he said. 

Those that answer the call to teach, he added, have a sense of mission and are “part of a ministry that the Church desperately needs.”

Catholic education comes full circle

When Fran Natalicchio’s fifth-grade science class recently dissected owl pellets, they discussed more than the life process and food chain in the forest. 

“We talked about how this is the way that God developed life, that we are all dependent to each other, and that these are the gifts that God has given us,” Natalicchio said. “I am able to talk about faith in every subject.” 

Natalicchio
Fran Natalicchio, recipient of a Golden Apple Award and teacher at St. Peter's in Olney, Md.

Natalicchio, 58, has been teaching in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., for 27 years, and currently teaches fifth grade at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Olney, Md. 

“I always wanted to be a Catholic school teacher,” she said. “I went to Catholic schools and I wanted to teach in a faith-filled environment. My faith is very important to me and I wanted to help others with their faith development.” 

Last year, Natalicchio was a recipient of a Golden Apple Award that recognizes outstanding teachers. One of the nominating parents was a former student whose daughter was in Natalicchio’s class. The woman told Natalicchio that she would never forget the prayer that opened the day when she was a student — the same one that her daughter prayed and that Natalicchio learned from a nun who taught her in elementary school. 

“It is the faith carrying on,” Natalicchio said. “I am teaching the children of people who used to be my students — they are bringing their children to me and it’s going full circle.” 

Natalicchio is a moderator for the school’s spiritual life committee from grades 5 to 8. The students, as the spiritual leaders, conduct prayer services under adult leadership and participate in service projects. Among other things, they make sandwiches for The Shepherd’s Table shelter in Silver Springs, and quilts for Marian Assisted Living Facility in Olney, which they also visit. 

“The interaction between the children and the seniors is totally amazing,” she told OSV. “The kids are so gentle and the seniors just love talking to them.” 

One girl was so touched by the encounters that she wants to become a teacher. 

“That’s what we are trying to do here — help these children to find their God-given vocations,” Natalicchio said. “Every child has God-given gifts and talents, and our ultimate goal is for the children to be able to understand what God really has in store for them.”