Bishop Jeffrey Monforton tried to engage some shy St. John Central preschoolers in conversation Tuesday by asking them if the penguins on the banner they made for him lived in the desert.
The students began chattering excitedly to tell him penguins live in the snow. One girl looked to her teacher and asked, “Didn’t he already learn about penguins?”
Teaching children about the academic and the spiritual aspects of life is being celebrated around the country as part of Catholic Schools Week.
In honor of the occasion, Monforton plans to visit all 13 Catholic schools in the Steubenville diocese, of which he became bishop less than five months ago. On Tuesday, he spoke with students at St. John Central Grade School in Churchtown and St. Mary School in Marietta, where he also led the Mass. Today, he will visit St. Sylvester School in Woodsfield before heading on to Cambridge.
“I’m wondering if it would be a good idea for me to invest in a houseboat,” laughed Monforton, who described his journey from Ironton on Monday to Steubenville by Friday as “ambitious but … fruitful and rewarding.”
Monforton served six years as rector at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in his native Detroit and just seven weeks as pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Rochester, Mich., before his appointment in Steubenville. He said he wanted to go to each of the schools this week to let the teachers and staff know he appreciates the work they’re doing.
“It helps evangelize our young people, for them to learn about their faith,” he said.
Monforton also expressed his appreciation for the students.
“You are not the future church,” he told St. John’s kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students in a morning assembly. “You are the church.”
At both schools, Monforton visited classes to discuss his role as bishop and the significance of his ceremonial attire, as well as answer questions from students.
St. Mary third-grader Leslie Huffman had a question about the bishop removing and putting back on the miter he wore during Tuesday’s Mass.
“In Mass, why do you take your pretty hat off so many times?” she said.
Monforton explained the large hat is a symbol of authority, but he usually does not wear it while sitting down. He also removes his skullcap, called a zucchetto, at times as a sign of respect.
“No men are allowed to wear hats when the Eucharist is right at the altar, not even the pope,” he said.
A fifth-grader at St. John asked Monforton when he discovered the priesthood would be his vocation. The bishop said he’d considered it but didn’t join the seminary until after college. He told the student he was interested in the priesthood but also in being a husband and father.
“What I realized when I was in the seminary was that the same qualities of being a good husband and a good dad (you need to) be a good priest,” Monforton said.
The theme of Catholic Schools Week 2013 is “Catholic schools raise the standards,” tying in with a new initiative, the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, aimed at ensuring consistent criteria and expectations at institutions across the country. In addition, Catholic educators are engaged in a nationwide effort to integrate their unique identity with the new national Common Core standards.
“We’re an evolving, dynamic institution, and we’ve made a mark on the history of our country, but certainly, our work is not complete,” said St. Mary Principal Rita Angel.
By integrating spirituality and the doctrine of Catholicism into their curriculum, Angel said, Catholic schools are “more able to address the total development of a child.”
St. John Principal Jane Frances Hofbauer said many students expressed appreciation for that aspect of their schooling on Monday when they wrote thank-you letters to their parents for sending them to the school.
“I like how we learn about religion, because in public school, you don’t learn about it,” said St. John seventh-grader Morgan Lang.
There are practical motivations as well for some families that choose to enroll their children in Catholic schools.
“We like the small class sizes and that everybody knows everybody, and it’s just a family atmosphere,” said Watertown resident Jenny Semon, a St. John alumna who has a son in sixth grade at the school and a daughter who attended there and is now a junior at Waterford High School.
Angel said she believes it is important to have Catholic schools as an option because education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
“I think strong private schools and strong public schools, the whole community benefits from strong educational choices,” she said.
Students do not have to be Catholic to attend the schools.
Other Catholic School Week activities locally this week include appreciation lunches for the staffs today and trips to the Marietta Roller Rink. On Thursday, St. Mary will hold Shadow Day, in which younger students spend time in class with the older children. St. John on Friday will welcome back former students preparing to graduate this year from local public schools to talk with current students.