Maria Rodriguez is not a religious sister, but she lives and works like one. The 23-year-old San Diego native teaches third grade students in a Chicago Catholic school and lives in a house with other new schoolteachers.
Rodriguez and her housemates exchange ideas about their educational ministry, pray together, participate in community outreach projects with one another and live very much like the vowed men and women religious who once dominated the U.S. Catholic school system. Everyone in her household is part of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education teacher formation program, which was set up with some of the same tenets that underlie religious communities.
A.C.E., as the alliance is known, “focuses on preparing young people in three pillars—in spirituality, in professional teaching and living in community,” said Benny Morten, principal at St. Ann School in Chicago and a former A.C.E. teaching fellow. “Those are three important aspects of a school community itself.”
“It is almost like a religious community, and I would say that’s not by accident,” said John Schoenig, teacher formation director for A.C.E. “This was an idea that worked quite well for many generations in the Catholic Church, and I think this is one of the more attractive elements of our formation model, of our framework.”
“First-year teaching can be very difficult, so it’s great to live in a community with other people going through the same things,” said Matt Gring, an A.C.E. teacher at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Tucson, Ariz.
The University of Notre Dame in Indiana developed the program more than two decades ago to address the needs of struggling Catholic schools throughout the country. Other U.S. Catholic universities established similar programs for the same reason.
“We all work together on our own spirituality to help each other grow, as well as coming up with ways to help our students grow,” said Jessica Jones, a 22-year-old A.C.E. teacher and colleague of Rodriguez at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Chicago. As Jones gathered her fourth-grade students to sit around a statue of Mary in her inner-city classroom, she told them how faith could affect every aspect of their lives, from their school work to being a good citizen in their community.
“One of the unique values that the religious men and women brought to their Catholic schools was a distinct charism in addition to their catechetical formation,” Schoenig said. “Your life would have been much different as a Catholic school student if you were in a school run by the Daughters of Charity than if you were in a school run by Benedictines. It’s because the charism would have been there.”
That notion of charism in the schools eroded as religious vocations declined and Catholic schools were staffed by lay teachers who came from many different universities, worshipped in many different parishes and had many different approaches to education, he said.
“I think we’re seeing a reanimation of that...with A.C.E. and programs like it,” Schoenig said.
Ryan Gallagher, a fourth grade A.C.E. teacher at St. Ann School in Chicago, said the charism in his school community has helped him grow professionally, personally and spiritually.
“It’s integrated my faith with my vocation, and I can see how that’s impacted the students I teach,” said Gallagher, a 23-year-old native of Duluth, Minn. “I’ve learned that teaching is a service and that it’s a vocation to serve those around you. You are doing it for your kids and your community, your principal and everyone around you, not just for yourself.”