By Laura Melius
Catholic schools have been a part of the eastern South Dakota landscape for nearly 120 years. The decades since six Dominican sisters opened the first Catholic school in Sioux Falls in 1905 have brought many changes to Catholic education in South Dakota, from the growth and decline of boarding schools, to the addition of preschools, to improved special education programs.
Currently, there are 25 Catholic schools serving students in preschool through high school throughout the Diocese of Sioux Falls. From the very first school to the current Catholic schools that serve our diocese, all have sought to provide an education based on the same foundation—a strong, authentic Catholic culture that seeks to spread the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
How have our Catholic schools managed to maintain this solid foundation? How are they unique in their educational mission, and how can we support them in this mission into the future?
Building Catholic culture
Brenda Mitzel, director of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, believes Catholic schools can preserve and provide the foundation of Catholic culture in a variety of ways.
“A rich Catholic culture must be present in every Catholic school,” Brenda said. “We also refer to this as a school’s ‘Catholic identity.’ This is present every day in the school through prayer, both private and communal. The weekly celebration of Holy Mass and time spent before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration are ways our Catholic identity comes alive.”
Brenda, who has been involved in Catholic education for more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator, added that as Catholic schools follow the liturgical calendar, students learn about feast days, saints and the liturgical seasons, which further reinforces the faith foundation on a daily basis. Additional opportunities also supplement the culture.
“Students experience retreats, sing songs of praise and worship, gather for small-group Bible studies and learn to help others through service projects” she said. “A welcoming atmosphere, gestures of kindness and a sense of community are features of a Catholic culture that are taught and nurtured throughout the schools.”
Father Tony Klein, chaplain at O’Gorman High School, believes that both a strong faith foundation at home and faithful faculty in Catholic schools are main components of nurturing a healthy Catholic culture. As with any school, the students have a major impact on that school’s culture.
“The more students who have a strong faith from their families will often help the school to be more authentic in their mission,” he explained. “As important as Catholic schools are, nothing can replace the home. The schools are meant to be a supplement to the life of faith at home, never a replacement.”
It begins with faculty
When we look at a typical Catholic school faculty, they look quite different from those in the first Catholic schools, when priests and religious occupied most of the teaching roles.
“With fewer religious and priests available to teach or be in administration, many lay people have risen to fill those roles,” Father Klein said. He sees present-day faculties fostering a healthy culture in a variety of ways. “Sometimes it is done through things that are more explicitly religious, such as beginning class in prayer, going to the church or chapel, or preparing for the sacraments. Sometimes it can be done through the witness of a teacher’s own testimony or tying in some aspect of the faith in other disciplines,” he said.
Grace Eisenberg, a second-grade teacher at St. Mary School in Sioux Falls, has recognized the significance of remaining close to the sacraments in school, which in turn keeps the students close to Jesus.
“The best way for any of us to get to heaven is by staying close to Jesus in the sacraments,” Grace said. “When our children are in Mass or receiving Reconciliation, we are helping them stay close to the one who will ultimately guide them to grow in virtue.”
Grace grew up attending Roncalli Catholic Schools in Aberdeen from preschool through high school. She had the unique experience of being immersed in Catholic culture both at school and at home, as her father was an English and theology teacher at Roncalli junior and senior high schools.
“I got to witness that community and sacramental living at an early age because of his life as a Catholic school teacher,” she said. “I would attribute that witness to my desire to attend Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, to be formed in order to become a Catholic elementary school teacher.”
As a teacher, Grace continues to find the consistency of the Catholic Church a source of beauty and strength.
“In a world where truth is relative, the Church remains a constant place of peace and joy in my life,” Grace said. “There, of course, have been some changes in our Catholic schools, but at the core, it has really remained the same since I have been a student myself. Community and truth.”
Often, Catholic schools are connected to a larger parish community. “For a child to see their school friends, teachers and other staff members from their school day living out their faith, it brings a whole new meaning to who they are surrounded by each day,” Grace added. “There is also a beautiful opportunity for teachers and parents to be in community with each other outside of the classroom and see that their commonality isn’t just the child, but Jesus Christ himself.”
Brenda agrees with Grace as she, too, has witnessed the strong presence of community in Catholic education.
“Community is a strong characteristic of Catholic schools,” Brenda said. “Students unite together in solidarity and challenge each other to become better reflections of Jesus Christ.”
Some of Brenda’s favorite memories as a Catholic educator stem from when the school community relied on their faith and each other to get through difficult moments, such as encountering the pain of death. “We were able to lean into our faith, take students to church or the chapel, and pray for the soul of the faithful departed. We could also talk about our eternal future, reinforcing the virtue of hope,” she said.
The Catholic schools have also begun to establish a larger community with each other. The school administrators meet virtually each month and in-person twice per year to learn from each other.
“Outside of regular meetings, the administrators communicate with one another, seeking answers to questions, looking for resources and supporting one another,” Brenda said. “Administrators have also pooled resources to provide professional development for teachers.”
Educators in Catholic schools appreciate the opportunity to view and care for their students through a Catholic lens, educating and nurturing them mind, body and soul.
“Catholic schools embrace the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person, recognizing that all are made in God’s image and all share a common destiny with him,” Brenda said. “This foundation inherently offers an education unique from any other, which will provide benefits to students far beyond high school.”
Grace added, “If a student is needing extra instruction, we don’t just move on. We see them and offer that time. When a student is struggling with self-regulation, we don’t pass them off as unworthy of patience or redirection. We see their dignity and help guide them in love.”
She also finds it important that educators not try to project a “perfect” image. “We show students that we need Jesus to be saints in heaven. We walk with our students, not in front of them.”
Connecting faith with life
Additionally, a main goal of Catholic educators is to demonstrate how faith is connected in all areas of life.
“The goal is not to make the faith one aspect of the student’s life, but to show how everything, even other subjects, can all be connected,” Father Klein said. “Truth has one source, and so whether we are studying biological truths, historical truths or stories from Scripture, they all flow from the same source and are meant to help us return to that source.”
Living in this truth can provide an invaluable support system, especially when it is found both at home and in school.
“When a child is in the Catholic school systems from preschool until high school, you have the opportunity to give them a space where there is still truth bumpering their lives,” Grace explained. “In the Catholic schools, they are guided by the truths of the faith, and at home they are guided by the truths of the faith. When they fail, no matter what the failure, all of the adults that surround them will be there to help them back up.”
As today’s students are faced with questions and situations that previous generations did not have to consider or encounter, this daily Catholic presence in their lives becomes more and more vital.
“As questions about God, humanity and reality as a whole become more and more prevalent, it is important to have a place where those good questions have good answers,” Father Klein said. “Unfortunately, many young people ask significant questions and settle for cheap answers. The Church has a rich history of intellectual life, unparalleled by any other organization.”
Father Klein said O’Gorman saw two foreign exchange students join the Catholic Church this past Easter. Both had some exposure to the Church in their home countries through friends, and they had considered Catholicism for the past couple of years.
“In addition to going to RCIA classes at the parish of their host families, we were able to meet during the school week to go deeper into any areas of confusion they had. That’s a real gift that wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere,” Father Klein said.
Grace recalled an experience with her second graders a couple of years ago when they encountered Scripture in a new way.
“I had such profound experiences as a youth with Lectio Divina, and it kept coming to my mind to do with my second graders,” she said. She initially put off the thought, as she did not think her students would understand what she was asking them to do when listening and responding to the Scripture. “Eventually, one day I took two verses and introduced a very simplified version of Lectio. I had the kids get cozy in the classroom, led them in a quick spontaneous prayer asking the Holy Spirit to be with us and then read the Word.”
After she repeated the verses, Grace asked the students to share what word or part of the Scripture passage stuck out to them. “Almost the whole class shared, and not a single student repeated another. The things that God was showing these eight year olds convinced me that he is working. I realized that day the holy ground I walk on each day.”
Sent out to serve
As the students grow in their Catholic education, they, in turn, will project their faith to the world.
“Catholic schools play a vital role as an engine of evangelization for the Church, especially in this secular world,” Brenda said. “Students receive a Catholic view of the world for 35 hours a week, 36 weeks a year. This influence has a ripple effect on the family and the wider culture.”
This Catholic influence encourages young people to be active and caring members of the communities of which they are a part. “Students learn that service is essential, and they are, in fact, their ‘brother’s keeper’ and have a responsibility to respond to the needs of those around them,” Brenda added.
How can we help support our Catholic schools to continue their mission?
“First and foremost, prayer is the most colossal gift that can be offered,” Brenda said. “Prayer warriors for the spiritual protection of our schools, staff, students and families are greatly appreciated.”
Additionally, Brenda named financial gifts for professional development, instructional tools, tuition support, scholarships and lunch balances to support struggling families as some ways schools and students can be supported financially.
“If you have a local Catholic school that you are able to support by sending your kids there or supporting it financially, please consider it,” Father Klein encouraged.
Brenda encourages all families to visit their local Catholic school to learn more about the opportunities they provide. Many scholarship programs are available to make it an affordable option. “Cost should never be an obstacle that discourages a family from looking into Catholic education,” she said.
When considering a Catholic education, Grace echoed Father Klein’s thoughts on starting at home.
“Be a domestic church first, and tell your children why you love Jesus Christ in the Eucharist,” Grace said. “If you have first-hand experience with Catholic schools, tell others why you think they are valuable, and build up your own parish community.”
As Catholic education has been a valuable part of the Diocese of Sioux Falls for over a century, it will continue to be well into the future as they provide a Catholic presence in a secular world.
“Catholic education has always been at the heart of Catholic mission,” Brenda concluded. “Catholic education, and the students who are the product of it, have been called, ‘the greatest work of the Church.’”