Catholic Education Trust Fund marks 10 years of assisting schools

Diocese of Knoxville program provides critical funding for parishes, schools to improve religious education

IN PRAISE OF CATHOLIC EDUCATION Bishop Richard F. Stika engages with young students at St. Joseph School in Knoxville during a recent visit.  Photo by Stephanie Richer

IN PRAISE OF CATHOLIC EDUCATION Bishop Richard F. Stika engages with young students at St. Joseph School in Knoxville during a recent visit. Photo by Stephanie Richer

At St. Stephen in Chattanooga, the parish is seeing growth in the number of registered families. That’s a good situation for a Catholic church to be in.

But it also can present a problem.

Limited parish resources and increasing financial burdens faced by families can create challenges for religious education.

St. Stephen, which is typical of nearly every parish in the Diocese of Knoxville, has discovered a valuable partner in its efforts to provide a solid Catholic education for its students – the Diocese of Knoxville’s Catholic Education Trust Fund.

The fund recently marked 10 years of providing much-needed resources to families and parishes to promote religious education.

According to trust fund administrators, it’s no secret that the most recent economic downturn has hurt many in need and has had an extreme impact on many Catholic households. The impact is seen in Catholic families’ ability to afford Catholic schools as well as churches’ ability to offer strong religious education programs.

But despite the challenges, a strong Catholic education is widely seen as the bedrock of a strong and vibrant Church.

“There are truly few things more important than the education of our children,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said. “Through the Catholic Education Trust Fund, children have been able to attend Catholic schools and parishes have invested in needed resources to teach the faith. Established through the GIFT campaign in 2004, the Catholic Education Trust Fund has had a profound impact in providing support for Catholic education across East Tennessee.”

After its founding in 2004, the trust fund began making distributions in 2005 to assist with Catholic schools tuition and parish Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) programs.

“That was the result of our first diocesan campaign. We were having issues with tuition and parishes having regular CCD classes and committing resources to CCD,” said George Haggard, a member of St. Patrick Church in Morristown and chairman of the Catholic Education Trust Fund board.

But the strategy early on was for the diocese’s 10 schools to receive funds for tuition assistance and other programs and for resources also to go to CCD programs at parishes, according to Mr. Haggard.

To streamline the administrative process, parishes and schools would submit formal requests for funds from the CETF.

Father Richard Armstrong, assistant director of the diocese’s Office of Christian Formation, then joined the CETF board. Initially, the fund had $300,000 to distribute, with $225,000 targeted for tuition assistance and $75,000 for CCD programs.

In the decade since its inception, the fund has distributed $3.6 million, of which $2.8 million has gone to tuition support, according to Father Armstrong and Mr. Haggard, who credit the CETF board for guiding the fund’s growth, especially during the Great Recession.

And since being established, the trust fund has enjoyed widespread support.

“Our parish priests are very much in favor of it. Most have made multiple requests to the fund and have received funds,” Mr. Haggard said.

Rather than wait for parishes and schools to approach the trust fund, Father Armstrong has been working with the CETF board to get the word out about the program.

“Part of my responsibility is to advise parishes on what a specific education program looks like and what resources are needed,” he said. “We are providing continuing education through workshops, seminars and conferences to help the growth of their programs.”

He noted that parishes and schools have requirements for sound catechesis and that a good formation of the catechist and the director of religious education are critically important.

Correct formation can have long-lasting effects on the Church, as can incorrect formation.

Father Steve Pawelk, GHM, pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Union County and St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Grainger County, shares that opinion.

Father Pawelk said the trust fund has allowed Blessed Teresa and St. John Paul to start faith formation programs critical to the mission of the newer congregations.

CETF money has purchased everything from chairs and tables to textbooks for the rural churches that have resulted in a growing number of youth involved in faith formation.

“We depend upon it and are grateful for it. It has been a great gift,” Father Pawelk said, noting that student textbooks cost $15 each and workbooks for teachers cost even more.

Father Pawelk strongly encourages participation in faith formation at the churches, which offer programs for kindergarten through adult in English and Spanish.

“We want our students to receive good faith formation. Everything builds from that formation,” he said.

The Catholic Education Trust Fund has been invaluable for Father Joe Campbell as he works to stay up with technology in his faith formation programs.

For Father Campbell and other priests and directors of religious education, the challenge is to pique the interest of youth and adults who are studying the Catholic faith using textbooks and multimedia tools.

“The Education Trust Fund has allowed us to stay on top of technology for youth and adult programs,” said Father Campbell, who is pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in LaFollette and Christ the King Parish in Tazewell. “Kids are so media oriented now. They really respect technology because they have it in their schools.”

Father Campbell has found that the technology can transform faith formation books into a multimedia presentation where the stories come alive.

“We have to keep updating, and it’s only through these trust fund requests that we’ve been able to do this. I’m a big proponent of this,” Father Campbell said.

Mr. Haggard pointed out that students with a sound Catholic education background are more likely to continue attending Mass after graduation.

Father Armstrong and Mr. Haggard agree that demand for CETF resources has grown tremendously.

Mr. Haggard credits Father Armstrong with continuing to make priests and parishes aware of the resources available to them, and Father Armstrong is quick to credit Mr. Haggard and the other CETF board members for their successful work in administering the trust fund. Father Armstrong said he continually advises directors of religious education about the CETF and how to develop a good proposal for funds.

When parishes or schools submit proposals for funds to the CETF board, 10 voting members review the requests and make recommendations. There are eight lay members and two priests on the board plus ex officio members.

“In the 10 years since we started, we’ve had a half-dozen or more new parishes, and through us we’ve been able to get their religious education programs going in a very professional way,” Mr. Haggard said.

Rapidly advancing technology can be both a hindrance and help to religious education programs. Father Armstrong enjoys helping parishes and schools navigate all the high-tech developments.

“Because of the overall quality of the program, we can offer the most updated technology. The playing field has been leveled,” Father Armstrong said. “One of the most popular requests we get is for technology. And we can’t properly form our youth if we don’t provide these resources.”

He noted that the technology requests range from digital projectors and large screen televisions for presentations to digital video discs, Blu-ray Disc players, and sound systems, which create an onus for him to keep up with technology developments.

Mr. Haggard said in recent years parishes typically have received a positive response from the resource requests they make to the CETF. But he pointed out that Diocese of Knoxville schools need more money for tuition assistance.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve pretty much funded everything the parishes have asked,” he said. “More families would send their children to Catholic schools if the money was available.”

Just as the technology required in today’s education environment has expanded, the scope of what the Catholic Education Trust Fund provides likewise has grown. Father Armstrong said attention originally was focused on the more remote, needy parishes, but that scope “has expanded.”

St. Stephen is a good example. The parish staff has bolstered its religious-education program at a time when the demand for resources has been high.

“The St. Stephen religious-education program in Chattanooga has been a fortunate recipient of the Catholic Education Trust Fund, offered by the Diocese of Knoxville, for several years. CETF has allowed our program to purchase student books for all grade levels, catechetical programs, catechist training materials, classroom resources, laptops and projectors, and even tables and chairs, which replaced broken and worn student desks and tables,” said Marilyn St. Pierre, the director of religious education at St. Stephen.

“Without the support of the CETF, many of the advances in our program would not be possible due to budgetary constraints. While our parish is growing in the number of registered families, many of our families face financial difficulties and are not always able to monetarily support the church as they wish,” she added.

“Our Diocese is fortunate indeed to have a fund that allows and encourages parishes to seek out resources and materials to nurture and enrich successful religious-education programs. When I worked for a large, metropolitan archdiocese in south Louisiana, such funding was not available to program administrators. I consider St. Stephen blessed to be able to ask for and receive the support needed to ensure a quality religious-education program for its parishioners,” Ms. St. Pierre added.

Father Armstrong and Mr. Haggard agree the Catholic Education Trust Fund, like the students it supports, has a bright future. The key is to keep growing the fund and continue to remind parishes and families that it exists to serve them.

“Just as the diocese continues to grow, it’s critical that this fund continue to grow,” Father Armstrong said.

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