These days much of my life is decided by two nuns.
My children spend their days with them. My nights and weekends are largely determined by the sports and dances and activities they organize. And then there’s the share of my paycheck they command, second only to our monthly mortgage payment.
One is Irish: Sister Noreen Holly, the Kerry-born principal of St. Vincent Martyr School in Madison, NJ. The other is Italian: Sister Patricia Pompa, principal of Villa Walsh Academy in nearby Morristown. Each fills her school with the only love that is true — the kind that takes us out of our own needs and wants to put others first.
We don’t speak much about love in education, not even during Catholic Schools Week. Instead, we focus on more tangible measures of success: how 99 percent of Catholic school students get their high-school diplomas; how a black or Latino child is 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college if he or she has attended a Catholic high school; how Catholic schools manage to do all this at a fraction of the cost of public schools.
Sonia Sotomayor, an alumna of Blessed Sacrament in The Bronx, calls Catholic schools a “pipeline to opportunity” for people like her. That’s true. And it’s true largely because Catholic school students are not just taught, but loved.
Back when he was playing for the New York Jets, Damien Woody sent his children to St. Vincent’s even though his family wasn’t Catholic. At a Christmas concert, a fellow parent asked him why. He answered, “My wife and I believe that a school where they love God will love my children.”
Don’t misunderstand: Sister Noreen presides over a little Lake Woebegone where scores show a large majority of the school’s students testing above the national average in all subjects. Each year SVMS sends large numbers of boys and girls to the best high schools, and she’s thrilled when she hears from a student who’s made good.
This week that happened to be an old student who was in the area for the Super Bowl. Sister Noreen taught him when he was at Sacred Heart in Jersey City, whose choir welcomed him back Tuesday with a rendition of “You Have To Have Hope.” If you want to know the difference a good nun and a good Catholic school can make in a life, ask the defensive end for the Denver Broncos, Robert Ayers.
In my home, my older girls have graduated from Sister Noreen to Sister Patricia. Those who say women are not taken seriously in the Catholic Church ought to spend a day with Sister Patricia. Fathers of her students include Wall Street bankers, high-powered lawyers, doctors, newspaper editors, even a governor. And when Sister Patricia says jump, we do — whether it’s to help sweep up after a dance or to raise funds for a new gym.
What makes Sister Patricia so formidable? Partly it’s achievement: Villa grads get into America’s top universities. Partly it’s that we all know there is no sacrifice she will not make if she thought it would help her students.
Mostly, it’s love….
In the popular view, Catholic schools succeed because they have greater discipline. There’s something to that, though it helps to remember that the Latin root for the verb “to discipline” is not “to punish” but “to teach.” It’s a lesson that begins with recognizing the equal and God-given dignity of every human being….
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