The oldest baptismal record in America, dated 1741, is at St. John the Baptist Church in rural Ottsville, Pennsylvania, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. But not so long ago, the Catholic school at one of the nation’s longest-surviving Catholic parishes was on the brink of closure.
Brian Middleton saw rapid decline when his youngest daughter, Maria, was a student. When she was in first grade, in 2008, Brian sat in the balcony of the old parish church for the opening Mass because so many students filled the pews.
The next year, he found a seat in the back row. The following year, he was halfway up the church.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And it was then that he realized his daughter’s parochial school was failing, and he needed to do something.
“Without a Catholic education, when these children become adults and get lost along the way, they wouldn’t have a place to come home to,” the father worried. It was the deep formation of his own Catholic education that ultimately saved him from losing his faith in early adulthood.
So, Middleton went to the pastor to discuss the situation. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, a good man did something—and with the help of many others, this little Catholic school has since triumphed against the tide of secularism and a 50-year trend of declining parochial education across the United States.
The pastor at the time, Fr. Simione Volavola, MSC, of Fiji, agreed that he wanted to keep the school open. “He wasn’t going to abandon the children, no matter how few there were,” said Middleton. “He was going to do whatever was required to fulfill his sacred responsibility as the pastor to provide a Catholic education for the kids. He was going to make whatever sacrifice was required. He could not imagine not having a Catholic school.”
Middleton, a business consultant, worked with the pastor to consider the school’s future from a business perspective.
“Businesses fail because people decide that your value proposition, or the product they’re receiving, is not worth the money,” he explained. “We looked at the value proposition and identity of the school. It had lost its Catholic identity. They were using the same curriculum as the free public school with a brand-new building, gym, and pool.”
Middleton and two other local businessmen—one of whom wasn’t even Catholic—shared a love for Catholic education and invested generously in the school.
“We started by trying to keep our new plan within the confines of the Archdiocese,” he said, meaning that they hoped to remain under diocesan sponsorship. “We took on all of the expenses of the school, about $750,000. The agreement was: if there’s a need, we’ll either write a check or raise money.” The parish continued to pay for the upkeep of the school building.
Despite making some progress, they learned in January 2012 that the Archdiocese was planning to close the school anyway. “They had already closed over 40 schools; they didn’t know how to save them, only how to close them,” said Middleton.
So, he and his growing band of supporters took the steps to make the school at St. John the Baptist Church legally independent of the Archdiocese, albeit no less Catholic. Several donors continued to provide for the school’s expenses, while the parish continued to pay for the building expenses. In total, it was only a handful of people who took on several million dollars’ worth of expenses—and none of them were especially wealthy; but they all believed in the same mission of Catholic education.
After the decision to go independent from the Archdiocese, there was concern that the school might not be allowed to be called “Catholic”—even though it was authentically witnessing and teaching the Faith.
“The school was committed to being a real Catholic school: our mission came from the Baltimore Catechism, namely, that we are to know, love, and serve God in this world and be happy with Him in the next,” Middleton said. “We upheld the supernatural vision that God enlightens us through Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium. We were founded on Christian anthropology, with Christ as our model, so that the students can become the persons God created them to be. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives.”
Middleton sought the help of Barbara Henkels, a Catholic education reformer whose Regina Academies have demonstrated how authentically Catholic, classical education with an integrated curriculum can appeal to Catholic families who otherwise have lost interest in parochial schools that largely resemble public education, with lukewarm Catholic formation and modern teaching methods. The success of the Regina Academies—which, like St. John the Baptist, are independent of direct diocesan control—has earned the support and enthusiasm of the Archdiocese, which sees them not as competitors but as an important part of the renewal of faithful Catholic education.
Henkels agreed to adopt the St. John the Baptist school into the Regina Academies fold. At that time, in 2014, there were only 72 students. Now there are 130.
Tami Koerber was brought in as Head of School at Regina Academy at St. John the Baptist to help teachers transition to the classical model of education. The classical model allows the children to be brought into the wonder of learning. As Koerber explained, “We capture the natural sense of wonder children have in order to lead them along the path of wisdom. That’s what holds in the child’s imagination: when information is presented from the perspective of wisdom, then they want to learn more.”
This natural sense of wonder is ultimately cultivated in the Catholic identity and liturgical life of the school. Like the other Regina Academies, the day begins with Forum: students pray a morning offering, the St. Michael Prayer, and Koerber teaches on a spiritual matter, the saint of the day, or the liturgical season. At lunch, students pray the Angelus or the Regina Caeli, and they pray the meal blessing in Latin. The day closes with an Act of Contrition, the Salve Regina, and a final blessing from the Academy’s chaplain, who is a Salesian priest and also the seventh-grade homeroom teacher.
Students also develop an appreciation for the liturgical year, both in the curriculum and in their activities, including weekly Mass, weekly Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament, and monthly confession. Koerber explained, “During Advent, we do the Jesse Tree tradition. We don’t do our Christmas celebration as an Academy until January because we want to mark Advent as Advent.”
“During Lent, we pray the Stations of the Cross,” she said. “We cover the sacred images during Passion Week. When the students come back from Easter break, there are flowers everywhere in the school. When Lent begins, the children will ‘bury’ the Alleluia; and when they return after Easter, there are signs saying, ‘Alleluia’ throughout the whole school.”
Other traditions include eating angel food cake on the feast day of the Guardian Angels and a rosary of cupcakes on Our Lady’s birthday.
Middleton’s own family has experienced the bountiful fruits of the school through a tragic situation: his daughter Maria, who was such an important motivation for his efforts to help the school, was tragically diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor when she was 16.
After the diagnosis, Maria told her father, “Regardless of the conditions of my life, my faith isn’t an emotion. My faith is a commitment. I’ll continue to have hope in the glory of our Lord. My purpose is to know, love, and serve the Lord.”
Middleton attributes this fortitude, in part, to Maria’s education at Regina Academy. “When I look at what we’re trying to bring to these children and young families, it’s meaning, purpose, and community, and to fight the battle of despair with eternal hope.”
Maria’s last journal entry was, “Think hope.” “And it wasn’t mere optimism. It was the certainty of her future with God.”
Maria died on October 8, 2020. “Maria is a saint, we believe,” Middleton said. “And she’s interceding for us all the time. That’s what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to make saints out of everyone who comes into contact with the school.”
To other parishes or dioceses that might be considering closing their schools, Middleton argues that the benefits of keeping a Catholic school open are worth the sacrifices.
“From a parish standpoint, having a school means that they have a ‘value proposition’ to offer young families,” he said. “Otherwise, people will pick the parish based on the pastor and his sermons.”
Furthermore, “the most active young members of the parish are members of the school: the lectors, choir members, and active families are all the rock of the parish.”
Another benefit to having a school is donations for the parish. Seven years ago, Middleton did a study and found that families who had children in the parish school made larger donations than those who had children in public school. The average difference was $1,600 a year compared to $30.
“If you close the schools, a lot of the parishes will close shortly thereafter,” Middleton said.
Key to saving a Catholic school is a pastor who is willing to sacrifice for Catholic education. Second, think about the enterprise like a business. “It’s the business of ‘selling’ hope eternal,” Middleton said, “and we should be able to sell that because God hardwires an emptiness in us that only He can fill.”
Another thing he recommends is selecting people to help the effort, like Jesus did. He picked strong-willed, impulsive men of action, all of them entrepreneurial. St. Peter was in business with the sons of Zebedee; St. Luke was a physician; St. Matthew was an independent tax collector.
“Our initial board meetings resembled something like a pirate ship rather than a church meeting,” Middleton said, “because we knew we were fighting a battle, a battle for the souls of these children.”
It’s amazing to think about where the students of Regina Academy at St. John the Baptist would be without the work of many people to keep the Catholic school open. “What we did was impossible from a human perspective, and none of us can take credit. There were too many miracles,” Middleton said. “When we were out of money, somebody would show up with a check. It’s been one miracle after another.”
As a result, another Catholic school has survived—more than survived; it has transformed into a lay-run classical school with Catholic identity at its heart, for the good of the parish and the good of the children.
[Photo Credit: Supplied by author]