A few years ago, a visitor traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to tour Sacred Heart Academy, a classical, K-12, parochial Catholic school that has turned around completely after nearly closing its doors.
The visitor said, “This is incredible. This is like looking into the past.”
Fr. Robert Sirico, then the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, replied, “No, what you’re looking at is the future.”
A bright future for Catholic parochial schools would be a welcome change. The number of elementary students in parish schools has declined nearly 75 percent since the 1960s, and weak catechesis has propelled many Catholic parents toward independent schools and homeschooling.
But a change is underway. Sacred Heart Academy is one of a growing number of parochial schools that have embraced a more distinctly Catholic formation in both the faith and the liberal arts, which is attracting more Catholic families and strengthening parish life.
And Fr. Sirico, whose faith and leadership made the transformation possible at Sacred Heart, has helped spark excitement among other priests and bishops to bring about the renewal of parochial education.
Formerly known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus School, the Academy opened in 1905 through the efforts of Polish immigrant families who wanted to provide Catholic education for their children. During more than a century of operation, the school has gone through many changes, from the small beginnings of 120 students and three School Sisters of Notre Dame to a peak of 900 students in 1925.
By 2012, however—when Fr. Sirico, the nationally known founder and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, was assigned as pastor—the school and parish were dying.
The Academy had only 68 students, and three of the teachers were from the local public schools, assigned without input from the pastor. Public schools rented one of the classrooms, requiring that all religious objects were removed during that time. Sacred Heart participated in a federal lunch program, causing fears that it might be in jeopardy of federal mandates on sexuality that would violate its Catholic principles.
Bishop Walter Hurley, then bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, told Fr. Sirico that he could close the school if he wanted to. But Father waited to observe the school, the parish, its programs, and its spiritual life. In the small Latin Mass community, there were a large number of homeschooling families who were skeptical of the school, but Father found two parishioners—one with a background in classical education, the other in finance—who agreed to help develop a plan to revitalize and “re-found” the school.
Immediate changes included uniforms for both students and teachers, relinquishing the public-school teachers, and eliminating the federal lunch program. The school also adopted a classical-style curriculum with emphasis on the liberal arts and Catholic formation.
A parent with two children in the school asked Fr. Sirico, “What if this experiment doesn’t work?”
“Well, then we will close the school,” he said, “but at least we will have it for another year.”
They decided to give the changes a try, without ever closing the school to reorganize. “I wanted to have continuity with the school’s history,” Father explained.
Almost ten years later, Sacred Heart Academy remains open and is flourishing. Fr. Sirico, who recently retired from his duties as pastor, cites the single-most important change for the school when it was re-founded: “We instituted daily Mass, and that was the most impactful and simplest decision,” he said. “We just moved the Mass time 15 minutes earlier. Every day begins with Mass—this is the parish Mass…it’s a real Mass, not a kid’s Mass. There is silence with the Mass, and so beginning the day with that kind of prayer is very enriching. It sets the tone for the entire day.”
That day is focused on study of the “Great Ideas” of the liberal arts, which teach students how to think for themselves. Sacred Heart has adopted a classical Catholic curriculum, which means that its emphasis on good literature, Latin, history, and culture is a part of the highest priority, to form students in faith and to help them seek God.
“The secondary effects of such an approach—such as the preparation it gives for one’s vocation—only fully come to fruition when these first motivations are securely locked in place,” says Zachary Good, dean of faculty and curriculum, on the school’s website. “At Sacred Heart Academy, we strive always to make first things first, and let our programs, curricula, and systems flow from that.”
Sacred Heart Academy is considered a “parish apostolate,” a designation that is more cultural than structural. Like other parish schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, the Academy functions in collaboration with the diocesan department of Catholic schools, has its own school board with limited jurisdiction, and is led by the pastor who makes final decisions on key matters, including hiring.
But what’s emphasized is that the parish and the Academy clearly share one mission of bringing one shared community to Jesus Christ, unlike many Catholic schools that seem to have a culture and activity distinct from the parish. The entire parish is invested in the school, which provides benefits even for those who aren’t enrolled in the school. For example, parents can send homeschooled children to the school two days per week for specific classes, such as Latin or science, or for sports. The school is there to support the students and adults of the parish in whatever capacity is necessary.
“Most priests don’t want to have a parish with a school,” notes Fr. Sirico. “They don’t want the bifurcation of energies. They’ll be supporting the school and not the parish, or vice versa; there will be tensions with the homeschoolers.”
But Sacred Heart Academy and the parish community are united in purpose.
“Having the school be considered a ‘parish apostolate’ has allowed for the formation of a whole community,” Father says. “It’s about building a culture and reinforcing ideas in the culture.”
For instance, students pray together with the parish, instead of in separate liturgies.
“The weekday Mass is completely full: the parents come, the weekday parishioners, and the students,” says Fr. Sirico. “This has revitalized the entire parish. It was dying, and now it’s one of the most alive.”
Not only does it benefit the parish, but it benefits the students to have the example of other faithful Catholics, such as adults who may not have school-age children and homeschooling families.
“There’s not a lot of catechesis in the sense that we tell everyone how to kneel, pray or receive Communion,” Fr. Sirico explains. “The culture of the school and parish models it and goes with the flow of it. They just learn how to do it from the community.”
From failing and almost being closed, Sacred Heart Academy has become a flourishing school, receiving full support from Bishop David Walkowiak of Grand Rapids. Fr. Sirico says the bishop has almost never said no to the Academy’s unique exceptions from some of the norms of the other parochial schools. He even allowed them to open a high school, even though there were already two Catholic high schools in the diocese.
Fr. Sirico says that’s because Sacred Heart Academy is offering something wholly different and isn’t competition for the other schools. At least 10 families have moved to the area for the school because they believe so much in the model. And Father has heard from others wanting to establish similar schools.
He offers this advice: “Know your community. It is important at the outset to know that you are building more than a school; you are building a culture.” Further, it’s important to find the right people to help you, “because you will need many different types of people with diverse talents.”
“I would also assess the sentiment of the bishop, because if you want to do something like what happened here, it is necessary to understand the bishop’s vision for education of the diocese, and gain his trust and support.” It’s also important to assess the openness of the diocese as a whole, as well as the financial supports the school would have.
Finally, and most importantly, says Fr. Sirico, “Naturally, this would include a network of people committed to pray for the success of the project. And here, I would especially commend people to the intercession of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who has such an insight and devotion to this vision of education.”
[Photo Credit: Supplied by author]