Some years ago, a priest came into a Catholic high school in southern Maryland and made a pitch for vocations. “Do priests dance? Why yes, we do,” he said as he showed them a video of priests dancing. That kind of thing. His pitch enthused precisely no one.
Not long after, the school invited a cassock-wearing priest who bluntly told the kids that God calls them to be saints. He challenged them.
John Olon, the theology teacher who invited Fr. Rob Walsh of the cassock into the classroom, cringed at Walsh’s message. He thought the kids wouldn’t have it, and they’d hate it. Like many adults, he thought the kids might want happy-clappy. He sold them short. A lacrosse player asked Olon if the cassock-wearing priest was coming back. Olon told the kid not to worry; he wouldn’t be invited back. The kid told Olon he wanted him back.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In my 2020 book Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic, I reported this. I wondered what kind of Catholic school would expect so little of the students. I noted that the St. Mary’s Ryken High School mission statement did not mention Jesus even once but mentioned “the great god diversity” three times. A parent whose child attended the Leonardtown, Maryland, school read the book and complained.
A number of things happened.
First, Olon woke up. He realized he had been too “cowardly.” While thoroughly orthodox, he says his faith had been too personal. He understood at that moment the students wanted more, that they would respond to more. And he realized the school needed to give it to them. Now on fire, Olon pestered the head of the school and was made chief mission officer.
Second, he got in touch with me, not aggressively or angrily but more like I ought to come down and see what was happening at the school. What with one thing or another, Covid mostly, the visit never happened. Until last week.
I drove for an hour and a half into southern Maryland to find my eyes opened. I realized that those two paragraphs in my book about St. Mary’s Ryken* were correct as far as they went but also incomplete. St. Mary’s Ryken was on a journey. Good things were happening at this 87-acre school nestled along the shore of Breton Bay, just off the Potomac River, 60 miles south of Washington D.C. Standing on the school’s dock where their sailing club pushes off, one can almost see St. Clement’s Island, where the English ships Ark and Dove landed in 1634 and where Fr. Andrew White, S.J., offered the first Mass in this region of the world.
Except for its spanking new athletic facility, St. Mary’s Ryken is homely. Most classes take place in old buildings, one of which used to house the priests and brothers of the Xaverian Brothers, who are now long gone, though they still own the land and have some governance authority. Classrooms are cramped and crowded, ceilings are low, hallways are narrow. They wear uniforms. Students seem joyful.
Olon is on fire for the evolving mission of the school. School authorities are actively considering a new mission statement, one which is Christocentric. He introduced me to a beefy kid who came to the school to play football and ended up converting to the Catholic Church. He no longer plays football. He hangs around the office of the Campus Minister, bowtie-wearing Greg DeStefano, who is equally on fire. DeStefano had been in priestly formation but discerned out and took a degree in philosophy from Catholic University of America. He’s been at St. Mary’s Ryken for six years.
Olon introduced me to young theology teacher Holly Kaufmann. She had been a student at Ryken, a fallen-away Methodist who converted to the Catholic Church in her senior year. She says some kids come in rather blasé, thinking they know all about God; but then they discover a whole world of orthodox Church teaching that fires their imagination. Kaufmann’s classroom boasts a poster-sized photo of John Paul II and another of Mother Teresa. John Paul II is all over the school, more than any other pope, as far as I could tell.
I met the remarkable Beth Allen, a campus minister who runs the school’s Caritas Resource Center. She’s a convert, too. She was an aggressive Evangelical and more than a bit anti-Catholic. Her apostolate at the school is immense. Old furniture, clothing, and housewares are packed into two big rooms in the old school, including the old weight room. She and her student helpers prepare move-in packages for the homeless entering new housing. Beth Allen’s kind eyes blaze with love for her work, but she is also clear-eyed about the homeless, understanding that mental issues are the primary driver for those living on the streets. Conversions have come from Beth Allen’s little empire for the poor.
And what of the faith? There is daily Mass presided over by holy priests. Upward of 60 kids and a handful of teachers attend. There ought to be more of both. Out of 700 kids, 200 are in regular spiritual direction with upward of fifteen priests who regularly visit the campus. Not only do conversions come from Ryken, so do religious vocations. You can see the list of current and past vocations on the website. Right now, there are ten.
None of this would have happened without Olon’s passion and the administration who gave it all a green light. Olon quickly credits former president Mary Joy Hurlburt and former principal Rick Wood. Olon says they essentially gave the theology department and campus ministry a blank check. He says the current principal, Cathy Bowes, has made the new mission an integral part of hiring and onboarding new faculty.
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You do get the sense, however, not everyone in the school is on board with the new direction. There is a sotto voce aspect to how Olon and his colleagues talk about the school’s mission. But they understand things take time, and a ship at sea takes time and space to change course. They understand continuing change will come from on-fire young teachers who hear what’s happening here and want a piece of it. Not long ago, a teacher from the fancy prep school Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire up and moved his whole family to teach at Ryken. This school, this mission, were just what he wanted.
There are a few readily apparent problems. The uniform skirts are yanked way too high, and there are too many screens. Walk past almost any classroom and you’ll see screens on every desk. But it is clear from most of what I saw that they are fighting against St. Mary’s Ryken being no more than a Catholic public school. What they are fighting for is making the school a kind of hallowed ground where teachers, students, and parents seek the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Do you see the attractiveness of a school that is on a mission? Some will see that when they read these words. Someone reading this right now will hear bells ringing. Is it you? Then call John Olon and ask him, “How can I get in on this.” This is how the Holy Spirit works.
*St. Mary’s Ryken is a puzzling name. What is a Ryken anyway? The Xaverian Brothers were founded by a former shoemaker named Theodore James Ryken. St. Mary’s Academy and Ryken High School eventually merged, hence the puzzling name.
[Image: St. Mary’s Ryken campus]