SASKATOON — As the Year of Consecrated Life draws to a close, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS) continues to celebrate the contributions that sisters, priests and bishops have made to Catholic education and to highlight the importance of religious vocations.
Pope Francis declared the year at the beginning of Advent 2014, calling for promotion and reflection on the gift of consecrated life. The year officially ends Feb. 2, 2016, the Feast of the Presentation, which is also the World Day of Consecrated Life.
Throughout the year, GSCS has focused on vocations and the call to consecrated life at events such as World Catholic Education Day 2015. A recently published history of Saskatoon Catholic Schools, Celebrating a Century of Faith and Learning, clearly shows the key role that sisters, priests and bishops have played in Catholic education since the district began in 1911.
“We have come to a deep realization of the degree of the contribution they have made to where we are today,” says Greg Chatlain, GSCS director of education. “It is important for us to understand our roots, and to appreciate the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are here today thanks in large part to the commitment and dedication of these folks.”
To conclude the Year of Consecrated Life, the GSCS Together in Faith and Action Committee has now initiated an Honour the Legacy banquet, to be held Jan. 29 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon. Some 200 consecrated sisters and priests have been invited as special guests.
The school division’s Together in Faith and Action Committee initiated the Honour the Legacy event. “The committee provides vision and direction for the faith dimension of our schools,” Chatlain said. The committee’s focus includes strengthening connections between home, school and parish; putting “faith in action” through social justice and outreach; and nurturing and supporting the faith journey of GSCS staff, community, parents and students, he said.
“The home-school-parish sub-committee is made up of members from the diocese, the eparchy, parents and school-based staff, and one of the realizations that came through as they were working through the Year of Consecrated Life was the absolute foundational work that the consecrated and ordained and religious did when it comes to Catholic education,” added Chatlain.
Ultimately, the call of Catholic education has always been grounded in the understanding of the human person as a child of God, with inherent dignity and gifts, he said. “Each child is gifted in amazing ways and our role is to help discover those gifts and then develop those gifts and help them hear their call and where that’s going to take them.”
Throughout its history, the church and religious orders have been involved in education, he noted.
“It has become clear the impact they have had — and that really raises the expectation for the laity now. We must continue to ensure that we are appropriately attending to the faith dimension of our schools. And that can be a challenge, because we don’t have that same background, the same training,” he said, stressing that Catholic schools in Saskatoon continue to rely on connections to the ordained and religious in fostering faith formation for students and staff.
The new GSCS history book — Celebrating a Century of Faith and Learning — describes how in the fall of 1911, Rev. H.L. Vachon, OMI, and Bishop Pascal found teachers for Saskatoon’s first Catholic separate school, which opened in the basement of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Saskatoon Catholic district began, staffed by three nuns from the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, with Sister St. Solange as principal and Sisters Mary Augustine and Leander as classroom teachers.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Sion arrived in 1917, establishing Sion Academy for girls in 1919. Meanwhile in the Humboldt area, now a part of the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools division, the Ursuline sisters were invited by the Benedictines to staff schools in that area. In total, 15 religious communities have served the Saskatoon Catholic school division, alongside both diocesan and eparchial priests, as well as priests from the Basilian, Benedictine, Dominican, Redemptorist, and Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious orders.
“The dedication of many religious communities was instrumental in establishing a tradition of excellence in Catholic education and faith formation,” recounts Celebrating a Century of Faith and Learning. “This tradition continues today in our school division. In the early years, the sisters taught for little or no pay. Until the 1960s they were paid less than lay teachers.”
Without the sacrifice of both religious and lay teachers throughout the early years — in particular during the tough times of the 1920s and 1930s — the district would not have survived, the book points out.
“We hear those stories from the 1920s and 30s where the economy was challenged, and the school board was in rough shape financially,” noted Chatlain. “Many of the consecrated turned their paycheques back, so that the board could stay solvent and Catholic schools could continue to operate.”
Chatlain also emphasized that the focus for the Year of Consecrated Life has not only been about celebrating the past. “We are also continuing to highlight to our students and staff that these vocations are important today,” he said.
“Vocations have come through students who have attended Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, and — God willing — there will continue to be vocations that come through in our students. We have a role to support that, to foster that, to honour that, and to celebrate that. We want this to also be a signpost in the ground that this is a very important aspect of who we are and we want to be able to foster these calls within our students today and in the future.”
Chatlain also acknowledged that the path of Catholic education has never been a gentle, smooth journey.
“Whether we consider the role of the religious and ordained and consecrated, or whether we think about the work of the laity — all have played significant roles over the years and have had to make sacrifices. People have put a lot on the line in support of and defence of Catholic education, and I don’t see that changing in this day and age.”