Across Canada, there are many types of schools: private, public, specialized, denominational, and so on. All of them meet a need based on the families that they serve. Among denominational schools, some are called Catholic in acknowledgement of their history. And then there are Catholic schools. Paul Fraser, principal of St. Joseph the Worker elementary school in Richmond, BC, is very aware of the distinction between these two ideas of Catholic schools in the 21st century.
In his school, Catholic values are ever-present. “Our faith permeates all parts of our curriculum”.
No matter what subject is being taught, the Catholic perspective is everywhere. Religion is not just another subject like math or geography. Here, it is lived out daily.
A Welcome Presence
Since July 2018, the spiritual life of St. Joseph the Worker parish has been in the hands of Franciscan Friars. Living in the parish rectory right next to the school, they strongly support all aspects of its educational mission. “Our Friars assist us with this, in their regular involvement and presence in the school community”.
Daily for some and weekly for others, Franciscans are literally part of the landscape of this school of 224 students. Sometimes with his guitar in hand, Father Joe visits the 8 classes from Kindergarten to Grade 7 every week. Fathers Manoj and Joachim regularly spend time with students in the schoolyard, chatting and playing with them.
Pierre Ducharme is a Franciscan priest and pastor of the parish where the school is located. He knows the students and their families well. In addition to being involved in the administration of the school, he supports the teachers in their teaching duties.
Father Pierre recognizes the children as being very bright. “When in the role of teacher, we really have to listen. I am surprised at how well the theological foundations are laid in kindergarten”. He admits that he has learned a lot from the children of the parish. « The children have much to teach adults. I am often surprised by their maturity. It is said the by age 13, children already have a sense of direction concerning certain matters – they know whether or not they will continue in the practice of the faith. For this reason, our witness is important.”
Pleased with this partnership, Paul Fraser appreciates the close collaboration the school maintains with the Franciscans. « It’s such a joy to have Father Pierre and the friars take an active role in the life of the school. ”
This school’s key to success, according to principal Fraser, is the emphasis placed on the individual needs of the student, offering each one of them support, whatever their particular needs. “We have many students with special needs, along with many students with special talents.” In keeping with the values of inclusion advocated by Catholicism, the staff do remarkable work with the children, no matter what their potential or their challenges.
This means that at St. Joe’s, as Fraser affectionately calls the school, all students must feel included and welcome. “We work hard to assist our students in developing a worldview that integrates their faith and love of Christ into their learning. This is done by both educating and modeling Christ-like behaviours to our students and school families.”
Using a biblical image, he notes: “Like the church, we believe that all students are welcome and all belong. There is a place at the table for everyone, and the Friars support and enhance this attitude of inclusion and acceptance of all.”
A Catholic Fabric
Today, as well as offering the basic academic subjects, many schools bank on enriched programs in science or music, for example, to attract and motivate students. Despite the competition that exists among schools, Catholic schools are holding their own.
The young people at this school in the greater Vancouver area come from practising Catholic families. Their faith is already well developed when they arrive. Equipped with this initial formation, what they learn at school guides them to discover the world.
“The students are given an excellent education that allows them to Mission into their young adult life with tools that pave the way for success. Not only are they academically prepared well as our standardized scores show, but their hearts and spirits look at the world with an understanding that there is more to life than just themselves and their immediate needs and desires.”
Deeply Rooted in Faith and Community
Paul Fraser is aware of the secularism that surrounds them, but because the school is deeply rooted in the community, he is not overly worried. “It doesn’t feel like what we are doing is ‘apart’ or separate from the rest of society.”
The close proximity that links the school to the church next door is a source of pride for its principal of more than 10 years. He uses an eloquent analogy to express his thoughts. “I am also very proud of the relationship the school has with the church. While other schools and churches work on building bridges between their communities, we have, what I love to call, a 6 lane superhighway between the church and school. Here, the School and Church are not separate entities; rather St. Joseph the Worker School is a ministry of the church.
“It also really helps that our Friars are so energetic and ‘real.’ They are not haughty and unrelatable religious figures whom the students and staff see from a distance. The present themselves as very real and human adults, who have felt a calling to serve God and others in faith. Their love of the faith is clear, and the joy of the Gospel is not just shared in words only; it’s shared in their actions and attitude. This real connection makes all the world of difference in the eyes of our students. They may not necessarily articulate this connection, but the adults can see that the connection is there.”
Click here to watch a lovely video from St. Joseph the Worker Church.