The Catholic Commentator  

Students’ faces register a range of emotions as they enter the classroom at the beginning of the school year, from “I want my mommy,” of pre-k students to “My last year of school, time to test my wings,” of the soon-to-be graduating seniors. At the 2017 Catholic Educators Conference at Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge on Aug. 1, attendees learned they play such a vital role in the lives of their cocooning students they themselves must be molded by God.  

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Teachers sing a hymn of praise during the Catholic Educators Gathering Aug. 1 at Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge.  Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 

 

“Like Clay in the Hand of the Potter,” was the theme of the conference, based on Isaiah 64:8: “Oh Lord, you are the father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; and all of us are the work of your hand.”  

Dr. Melanie Verges, superintendent of Catholic Schools, welcomed the attendees, then Bishop Robert W. Muench lead a prayer service.  “I have a sense that I am in a room of a team of all-stars. Give yourselves a hand,” Bishop Muench began in his reflection.  

The bishop reminded the educators that they are a gift of creation of a holy God.  

“God has created us with value, with meaning, with purpose and mission,” said Bishop Muench.  

He urged the educators to support, encourage and challenge each other.  

“He (God) calls us to accountability, just like we do the students,” the bishop said.  

Bishop Muench noted having crucifixes in the classroom doesn’t make a school Catholic, it is only the beginning. He said witnessing the faith to students is what makes a school Catholic.  

“Our job is to lead by example as well as word,” the bishop said.  

Acknowledging some students can be challenging, the bishop drew laughter and thunderous applause when he wryly said, “The students who give you the most trouble will earn you a better place in heaven.”  

He urged the attendees to rediscover the child within themselves by being open to the Holy Spirit.  

“We have to have that spirit to be reinvigorated and renewed,” said the bishop.  

He concluded by challenging the educators to be involved and be instruments of God’s grace and change in their schools, communities and the world. He left them with the questions, “If not you, who? If not now, when? If not this, what else?”  

The attendees were further told by speaker Katie Prejean, “You have one of the most important occupations in America.”  

Prejean, a teacher and author, said because teachers hold such an important role in the direction the students take in their lives, it is critical that they engage the students’ hearts and souls as well as their minds.  

She pointed out that Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”  

“It doesn’t matter if you know your stuff,” said Prejean, adding if the students only see the knowledge in their head and nothing else, they won’t make an impact.  

Prejean said the teachers who have touched her life most are the ones who helped her grow in her relationship with Jesus and her appreciation of the Eucharist.  

“Who are we talking about when we are talking about the person of Jesus Christ?” asked Prejean.  

She said people have “many pictures in their head” of who Christ is, but the one definite thing known about him is that he came to encounter people and continues to do so.  

“He’s knocking on the door to get inside us. You get to open the door to that relationship. He dwells among us and invites us to dwell with him. We have the opportunity to say ‘Yes’ ” said Prejean.  

She said in John 1:35-37, John points to Jesus as God becoming flesh when he proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God.” In the following verses, when people ask Jesus questions about himself, he invites them into a relationship by saying, “Come and see.”  

She told the teachers when they discuss their faith in school, they should not “teach the curriculum of the cross” but point the way to Christ who is alive through their faith.  

The teachers attending the conference said they received the inspiration they needed as they prepared to meet and lead a new group of students.  

“It’s kind of bittersweet for me,” said Tonya DeSoto, a third-grade English language arts teacher at Our Lady of Mercy School in Baton Rouge. Mixed in with the excitement of the “new beginnings” for the school through OLOM’s “Traditions for Tomorrow” campaign is sadness that the youngest of her three children, Sydney, will be graduating from OLOM.  

Traditions are important to DeSoto’s family. She is the sister of Father Trey Nelson, pastor of St. Jude Church in Baton Rouge, and the family grew up at Our Lady of Mercy.  

“I want to pass on the history and traditions to teach them that they are part of that history too,” said DeSoto.  

This school year will be one of transition for Tammy Matirne, who after several years teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math and science, will be teaching senior high school biology.  

An Ascension Catholic High School graduate, Matirne said she graduated from college with a degree in biology, but went back to college to get a teaching degree.  

“It will be a personal challenge to teach seniors, but it will be a new, exciting experience for me. Change is good, that’s what I say,” said Matirne.  

She said her goal for her students is “to send them out in the world with the skills for professional success and, through their experiences, to have grown spiritually.”  

Ruth Oliver, a fourth-grade teacher at Redemptorist St. Gerard School in Baton Rouge, said she would like to help generate more parental involvement in the school and would like to see more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math in the classroom.  

“In this world we live in it’s so important to be efficient in math and science,” said Oliver.  

Helping students to be whole in mind, body and spirit is the mission of Brian  has served SVDP in a variety of capacities during the past 20 years and is currently the society’s council president.  

He also commended St. Vincent de Paul kitchen supervisor Denise Spears.   

“Denise and her staff do a great job,” Acaldo said. “It can be hard to put a meal together, but it’s delicious. What is donated has to be put to good use – you have to be creative. It’s important that we don’t have a lot of waste.”  

The bishops of the Diocese of Baton Rouge have also been big supporters. Acaldo remembers that even as the late Bishop Stanley J. Ott dealt with the ravages of cancer, he served in the dining room on holidays.  

Bishop Robert W. Muench also makes SVDP a priority.   

“When he’s serving in the dining room, he goes around visiting people,” Acaldo said.  

He said the bishop’s father served as a Vincentian in New Orleans for many years.  

“He gets the importance of reaching out to those in need,” said Acaldo, who noted that the bishop has “blessed a lot of buildings.”  

Looking to the future, Acaldo said he is excited that for Thanksgiving, in addition to serving at the dining hall, which averages 600-700 meals, SVDP will be working with Holiday Helpers to provide meals at Raising Cane’s River Center, which averages about 1,200 meals.  Acaldo said with homeless camps being reported in areas where they had not been in the past, the instability of families and food insecurity mean the work of St. Vincent de Paul will be ongoing.  

While many may look to the government to “do something,” Acaldo said it’s faith, and faith-based communities, such as SVDP, that lift people through hard times.  

“Faith-based activities are ultimately the answer,” said Acaldo. “When something doesn’t seem possible, it’s God who gives us the strength to do it.”