Independent Catholic schools foster Catholic communities
My wife called my attention to an article in our diocesan newspaper entitled “Halo effect” which, on its website, is more fully entitled “Once ‘Helltown,’ Front Royal emerges as a Catholic destination”. It’s all about how the move of the two-year-old Christendom College to Front Royal, Virginia stimulated the creation of a vibrant center of Catholic faith and life in and around the once wild and woolly county seat of Warren County, Virginia.
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This new, independent Catholic college had been founded by Warren Carroll and four other faculty members in 1977 and moved to its permanent home in Front Royal in 1979, precipitating over time the Catholic “boom” that the article describes. But this is not the only Catholic success story built around a good Catholic school. Much the same thing happened in Manassas, Virginia after the foundation there of Seton School by Warren Carroll’s wife, Anne. This independent Catholic junior and senior high school, which started operations two years before Christendom, has been in Manassas ever since.
Seton’s impact on Manassas is not as clear as Christendom’s impact on Front Royal, since Manassas is a much larger community, but the Catholic presence has definitely increased in the Manassas area in significant part because of the school. At one point the late Fr. John Hardon, SJ commented: “If you want to raise your kids Catholic, move to Manassas”, and quite a few Catholic families have done exactly that. As for Front Royal, parents often send their children off to college without changing the locations of their homes, but some parents and former students have located or relocated there, as have other Catholic organizations such as Human Life International and Chelsea Academy, along with a Seton spin-off called the Seton Home Study School.
I was privileged to be one of the founding faculty of Christendom College, but I only stayed there for eight years before starting Trinity Communications and ultimately CatholicCulture.org. My wife was a long-time teacher at Seton School until her retirement just two years ago. We raised our own family of six children (and now seventeen grandchildren) in Manassas, Front Royal, and Manassas again, and two-thirds of our children have also located in Front Royal and Manassas, so I guess we are part of the trend. Though Christendom College started with 26 students almost 50 years ago, it has since grown into a well-funded institution with room for over 500 students. Though Seton School also began with just a handful of students nearly 50 years ago, it has grown to the point of educating about 350 students each year.
Moreover, Catholic communities have grown larger and more vibrant around both institutions. It is important to add that the Carrolls deliberately chose the Diocese of Arlington as the location for their foundations because its new bishop, Thomas Welsh, was known to be rock solid, along with the vast number of priests who began to serve under him when Pope St. Paul VI split the Diocese of Richmond to create Arlington in 1974. Both new schools—Seton and Christendom—have been strongly supported by Arlington’s bishops and priests, and the healthy parishes in and around Manassas and Front Royal only became healthier as a result.
The point is that sound Catholic educational institutions draw sound Catholic families like spiritual magnets, and of course sound dioceses with outstanding bishops and priests do the same. You can read the particular story of the Catholic boom in Front Royal which prompted these observations, but in fact there are other fine examples of the same phenomenon around the United States, involving both new and refounded colleges and schools. This is probably true in some other countries as well—though, of course, America is known for do-it-yourself non-profit organizations which, despite our growing problems with secularization and big-brother government, still remain a significant feature of our culture.
I am sure our readers can alert me to (and remind me of) other successful foundations which have stimulated the development of healthy Catholic communities. It wouldn’t hurt in the least to make a list of those that get several reliable recommendations. Let us know where the good spots are, and why you think they are so good. I’ll bet that for many of them, independent Catholic schools tell an important part of the story. Sound education through college is vital to the salvation of souls and the growth of the Catholic Church, but it is also still far too rare. We should never ignore such a sign of hope.
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