A new kind of Catholic school

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a small elementary school in Natick that was founded in 2013 by some friends of mine. St. Benedict Elementary School offers “a classical education in the Catholic tradition” to 60 students, from kindergarten to grade six. Unlike the Catholic school that I attended back in Rockville, Md., from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and which I loved, it is not a parish school taught by nuns. 

At that time, 50 years ago in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council ended, there were record numbers of priests and nuns in this country, and record number of Catholic baby-boomers to be educated. The vision of the Third Council of Baltimore of 1884, and its beloved “Baltimore Catechism,” still prevailed, which had decreed that every parish have its own parochial school to which Catholic parents should send their children, preferably free-of-charge. The abundance of women religious teaching and working for a pittance made this vision possible, but it did not last. St. Benedict’s is the only Catholic school in Natick, but it’s not a parish school. 

Vatican II, and the 1992 “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” had talked about parents being the primary educators of their children, including in matters of faith, and the importance of lay persons taking responsibility and initiative in the apostolate based on their Baptism and Confirmation, rather than necessarily waiting for a direct mandate from the hierarchy. 

The board, staff and teachers are lay people, parents and educators who share a common vision of education which goes beyond the common core to embrace a classical education (Latin, for example, is offered in the fifth and sixth grades). 

As Daniel Webster said of his beloved Dartmouth College, it is a small school, “and yet there are those who love it.” It has grown from 26 students in its first year of existence, to 45 in its second, to its current 60. The students, when asked what they liked about the school, often commented how much they love the teachers, who are impressive (and young) educators. 

One student said he didn’t like the homework, which the new headmaster, Jay Boren, called “rigorous.” Every Monday a memo goes to the parents to advise them of expectations in that regard for the week, the better to involve the parents as primary educators. 

The school accents the beautiful in arts, poetry, literature, and history, “our intellectual birthright,” as the gifted headmaster says, who comes from teaching at a Catholic high school in Mobile, Ala., where he also, Renaissance man that he is, coached the football team. (I think he misses Alabama high school football, though). The artwork around the school is indeed eye-catching. Its sixth-graders will read “The Odyssey” this year. All the classes have oratory on Friday, where they learn to recite pieces from memory. 

The Catholic tradition is also stressed. After all, the university arose in the Middle Ages in the heart of Catholicism, and so did the Renaissance, another blend of classical and Christian culture. The students pray the Angelus at noon, and the music class is learning, among other things, Gregorian Chant. 

The tuition is $6,580 for the school year, but there is plenty of student aid, as the school does not want to turn away students for financial reasons. And, of course, the co-ed school does not discriminate in any way on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. 

And while modern university education, and the public schools, have largely abandoned character education, St. Benedict Elementary unabashedly proclaims: “Our virtue-based character education program teaches students universally-valued virtues such as honesty, integrity, perseverance, respect for self and others, self-control, and patience through weekly ‘virtue talks.’ We intentionally integrate this formation in the virtues into the culture of the school as well through our study of character development and heroism in literature and history.” 

The great Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, ends his 1981 book “After Virtue”: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” Precisely.

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

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