Catholic education relished at forum

FORT FRANCES—Parents, educators, priests, and members of the local Catholic community all put their heads together to reflect on—and express their views about—the important of faith-based education during a public forum hosted by the Northwest Catholic District School Board here Tuesday night.
The board is hosting four such sessions throughout its catchment area this month, with Dryden and Sioux Lookout having participated last week and the final one in Stratton tonight.
“I was really impressed by how enthusiastic and focused all the participants were,” Education Director Mary-Catherine Kelly said following Tuesday night’s forum at St. Francis School.
“They were genuinely enthusiastic and committed to talking about their faith,” she added. “I thought the comments were really encouraging.”
“I think things went well,” echoed Kathy Mueller, the board’s Catholicity co-ordinator who helped facilitate the event with Kelly.
“There were some very positive ideas. There’s a great sense of pride in our Catholic system,” she added.
About 65 people attended the forum aimed at the communities from both St. Francis and St. Michael’s schools here.
Following an introduction by Kelly, participants were put into groups—as parents, teachers, education assistants, principals, or community members—to discuss several philosophical and sometimes soul-searching questions regarding Catholic education.
Some of these questions included:
•Which aspects and features of Catholic schools do parents value the most?
•How do you see our Catholic schools contributing to the good of our society?
•Do you think the survival of Catholic schools in Ontario is a major issue, now or in the foreseeable future? How do you feel this issue should be dealt with?
Participants were given time to discuss each of these and several more questions with their groups, and then were asked to record the answers they came up with and submit them.
Some were invited to step forward and share their answers with the larger group.
Jean Bujold shared some of the answers she and her fellow teachers came up with in discussing the distinctiveness of Catholic education.
“As teachers, we try to teach our children we’re not just physical beings,” she remarked. “We’re trying to model Jesus in light of the current cultural challenges.”
Regarding parent involvement in the schools, Fort Frances trustee Harold Huntley spoke on behalf of his group.
“Some parents are very actively involved. We just need to convince others that they matter,” he said.
“We need to be planting the seed for future leadership,” Huntley added. “Kids should be questioning everything because that’s the only way they’ll ever become discerning believers.”
Marie Brady spoke on behalf of her group of fellow parents, noting there’s room on the school councils for people other than parents, such as parishioners and members of the general community.
“People don’t come,” she said.
Regarding the survival of Catholic schools, St. Francis principal Teresa Dennis spoke on behalf of her group of administrators.
“We don’t want to underestimate the threat against Catholic education,” she warned. “This is our system. We’re proud of it.”
“Promote it,” stressed Fort Frances trustee Anne-Marie Fitzgerald. “Stand up and answer those who question it.”
Another participant emphasized the importance of the link between schools and their local church.
“If you promote that, if you continue that, then you will last another 160 years,” he said.
Some participants suggested the introduction of uniforms to help distinguish Catholic students from their secular counterparts.
In her opening speech, Kelly noted Catholic education systems had been abolished in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador in recent years, and that there were some who would like governments to stop funding religious education altogether.
“In light of this political climate, it’s time to speak up for Catholic education,” she said.
With this in mind, Kelly addressed some of the myths surrounding the separate school system. One of those is that Catholic education is a duplicate of the public, secular system.
“We are a distinctly different, faith-based system,” she stressed.
“We are looking at the formation of the whole child: mind, body, and spirit,” she added, noting Jesus Christ is always at the centre of their teachings.
“As Catholic educators, we are here to nourish each child on their journey to God,” Kelly continued.
“It is important for Catholic schools to be different not only in fact, but to be seen and known to be different,” Mueller said.
Kelly said she and Mueller had presented many of the same questions to Grade 8 students at Sacred Heart School in Sioux Lookout, and that they also would be presenting it to the Grade 8 students at St. Francis here.
“It helped for them to articulate their faith,” Kelly noted.
Fr. Francis Pudicherry closed the discussion with a warning—and a call to action.
“If the system dies, it will be from within. And you and I, we will be responsible,” he said. “Let us be visible transformers.”