‘A match made in heaven’

Echo graduate students making a local impact in diocesan schools and parishes

By Gabrielle Nolan

Since 2017, the Echo Graduate Service Program has brought nine graduate students to the Diocese of Knoxville to enrich the parish and school communities here.

The program, which is under the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, allows graduate students to study for a master’s degree in theology for two summers on Notre Dame’s campus, and then work full-time during the academic year in either a Catholic school or parish.

According to its website, “Echo students benefit from a robust formation program that integrates their work, study, and life of faith in order to serve the Church and to explore a career in ministry, all while growing as a disciple and a leader in catechesis and evangelization.”

Tom Dompkowski leads a middle school religion class at St. John Neumann School in Farragut as part of the Echo Graduate Service Program.

Students accepted into the program receive benefits, such as a stipend, an educational allowance, housing and utilities at no cost, and a full meal plan and rent-free housing during summers at Notre Dame. Most notably, the graduate degree is tuition-free.

Echo apprentices currently serve in dioceses across the country, such as Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Newark, N.J., Indianapolis, St. Augustine, Fla., and Knoxville.

“These students are a huge blessing and gift to the Church because they are formed well in the teachings of the Church, they want to serve, and are eager to share their knowledge with others in the Church,” said Beth Parsons, the Echo formation assistant for the diocese.

“The diocese benefits from their placements here as they are a witness and the face of Christ to the young people they serve. Their example will impact our diocese for years to come,” she continued.

Currently, two apprentices are working within the diocese at Catholic schools. Gregory Duchak is assigned to Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Knoxville, and Thomas Dompkowski is assigned to St. John Neumann School in Farragut.

Service to the Church

Mr. Duchak received his undergraduate degree from the University of Dayton in Ohio, where he met graduate assistants studying for a master’s of theology and also working in campus ministry.

“And I just loved that they got to study my favorite subject tuition-free in exchange for service to the Church, and I was like, that is amazing; I’ve got to do that,” he said.

He felt the call to attend the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., but was disheartened to learn they did not have a similar program.

The priest in charge of the theology department encouraged Mr. Duchak to look into the Echo program at Notre Dame, as it met all his wants but worked with younger students.

Greg Duchak leads a middle school religion class at Sacred Heart Cathedral School.

“It has just been an absolute match made in heaven for me when it comes to offering something that I wanted to do right after (college), which is get a master’s of theology to study, and to deepen my appreciation for richness in the wisdom of the Church that’s on display,” Mr. Duchak said. “It allowed me two more years of further study. It allowed me two years of practical experience of serving Christ’s Church, which is not glamorous at all but it is deeply gratifying.”

During his junior year of college at the Catholic University of America, Mr. Dompkowski began thinking about what he would like to do after college.

He learned of the ACE program at Notre Dame, which provides a free master’s degree in education. When he asked if there was a theology equivalent, he was surprised to learn of the Echo program.

“It meets the things that I’m looking for,” he said. “Obviously it’s financed, so that’s a load off of my plate. The faculty is great. There really isn’t a comparable program like this. So, it was just very unique, and I wanted that master’s-level education while also getting on-the-job experience, and so that’s what the program did and is doing. In junior year, I was thinking, oh, I’ll be a teacher, I think I’d probably be good at that, and so I applied for the teaching track.”

When applying for the Echo program, the university does take each student’s preference into account when finding school or parish placements that are available.

Students are sent in groups that range from two to five people, so the two years are spent in community with one another.

“Echo is a program that forms future leaders for service to the Church and does so in a way that is cognizant of the whole human person, and so we obviously get a high level of education, but we’re also placed in a community,” Mr. Dompkowski said. “I really like that part of the program because you’re getting formation in that, too. You’re with another person, you’re living with them, you’re sharing your experiences with them, growing in faith together, and all the while contributing something to the Church now.”

Once a week, the roommates have a community night, where they share prayer, dinner, and an enjoyable activity.

Monday through Friday, the Echo apprentices are busy teaching their students. A typical week usually consists of early mornings, lesson planning, grading, meetings, and their own online classes with Echo.

“Even though we study on campus both summers, to complete our degree on time, we have to take two classes online during the school year when we’re teaching,” Mr. Duchak said.

An online class may last one hour but requires three to five hours of reading and classwork during the week.

Mr. Duchak works one-on-one with Sacred Heart students.

“Echo definitely keeps you busy, but what’s cool is that all the busy activities are really good activities and then you never feel alone or trapped in your work or your studies because you’re doing it in a community,” Mr. Duchak said. “You do have your direct community members who understand what you’re going through, who you can lean on, who you can talk to about the class content you’re doing or to talk about how are things at your job; you can bring those up.”

Ten months out of the year, apprentices are in their placement at a school or parish, and then they return to Notre Dame’s campus for summer studies. But every January, the university flies all of the students back to campus for a winter retreat and workshop.

The experience is a favorite part of the program for Mr. Duchak.

“It’s all 60 of the students, we get to see some professors, we get to be with our directors for the program, and it’s just a wonderful little break from the everyday work that we do, just to take a step back and say, where has God been working? And also how have I been provided for by God?” he said.

“Then also, just socially, it is so reviving to be with your best friends that you’ve been hanging out with all summer halfway through the year; it kind of gets you through that spring push to get you back to summer. It kind of reminds you that you’re part of that greater program, you’re not just the community that you live with or the school that you serve at,” he explained.

Teachers for Christ

Both Mr. Duchak and Mr. Dompkowski teach sixth-grade religion (Old Testament) and seventh-grade religion (New Testament). Mr. Duchak also teaches eighth-grade ecclesiology/Church history, while Mr. Dompkowski is also a seventh-grade homeroom teacher.

Mr. Dompkowski leads his class at St. John Neumann School in a religion exercise. Mr. Dompkowski and Mr. Duchak are teaching school in the Diocese of Knoxville as part of the Echo Program for the 2022-23 academic year.

“Teaching in a Catholic school has been very, very rewarding. But that reward comes through a lot of hard work,” Mr. Dompkowski said. “I’ve never taught before; I’ve never taken specific education classes before, so this is the first exposure I’ve had to the realm of teaching. The first year is a lot of difficulty learning how to do it, and I think this year has been, OK, I know what to do now.”

“I really got to see the value of community at the school and just the help that everyone gives to someone who is still learning how to do this but wants to get better for the people that he’s serving,” he continued. “That’s a great mark of this place, is the service orientation of all of the faculty, which then goes down into the students because they can see that witness in their teachers.”

Mr. Duchak has had a similar experience at his school placement.

“I have had the most supportive workers, the most kind, gentle administration,” he shared. “I’ve had people who dropped everything to help me out when I am struggling. If I’m lacking in an area they’ll give me advice on where to go to get that fixed or to work through something.”

“People are just so collaborative here, which is great. People are so positive and encouraging. And then also the parish staff, as well, they’re not in a silo. They totally are very fluid with the school, which I really love,” he added.

The Echo program also provides a mentor at the placement site for each apprentice.

“My mentor (Naomi Berlin) is awesome,” Mr. Dompkowski said. “She’s been here for I think about nine years, and so she is helping me with getting more acclimated as a teacher and having someone to bounce ideas off of; and just someone to chat with who’s an adult is really nice because most of your day is spent conversing with the youngsters.”

“Every week we meet with the mentor and just check in, catch up, bring any sort of issues that we want to talk about,” he said.

Mr. Duchak likewise described his mentor, Maggie Hook, as “fantastic.”

“Everything that I need, she’s always there to help out, whether personal or professional, whether it be inside the classroom or outside of the classroom. So, I’ve just been so grateful for her,” he said.

Another mentor for the program is the diocesan leader, who is Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville.

“We also get to meet with him throughout the year, and we have a dinner with him, which is really great, and that’s just great because it’s another resource again just showing us how much Echo wants us to succeed,” Mr. Duchak said.

Yet another mentor is Mrs. Parsons, the Echo formation assistant, who helps with the apprentices’ apartment logistics.

“So, anything apartment related, Beth is that person who can help out,” Mr. Duchak explained. “We actually see her about once a month, so she’ll come and join us for our weekly community night.”

Lastly, the Echo program requires that each apprentice has a spiritual director at their parish or school.

“I just can’t emphasize how much help and resources Echo give us,” Mr. Duchak said.

‘A very transformative program’

Mr. Duchak said the Echo program has “completely made me grow up.”

“I came into this program very immature, still very much a college student, and I would say that Echo challenges you and asks you to become something you are not yet,” he shared. “I just love that. It’s a very transformative program, and looking back on who I’ve become, it’s just amazing.”

“The skills I’ve learned and gained from my coworkers but also from God have been everything from being administrative to being professional to being responsible to be on top of my tasks, on top of being proactive with things I need to get done,” he continued. “I would say it’s transformed me, made me so much more mature, professional, more successful, and also believe in myself more.”

The program has also allowed the Echo apprentices to deepen their faith.

“I think one thing that has definitely helped me grow in faith is continuing to learn what prayer is and keep going back to that,” Mr. Dompkowski said. “There’s that deepening of intimacy with God, which has been something that has happened since my time in the program.”

Mr. Dompkowski also noted that faith is not just a private practice.

“I’ve also really grown to appreciate the community of believers,” he said. “I’ve also really grown to appreciate it’s a journey we make together. Other people are also striving for holiness, and they’re also living as the Church, and so it’s not just you and God, it’s you together with others worshiping God. I think the past two years is that idea of the necessity of loving others and seeing God in them and letting them speak themselves to you.”

“Every aspect of my faith has grown and enhanced,” Mr. Duchak said. “I would say that I see Christ so much more in my daily life since I’ve started Echo. I see Christ working through my students daily, my coworkers…. It’s definitely made my capacity to recognize Christ grow a lot more, and then also I think that my faith has grown a lot more in all that transformation and all that growing.”

Mr. Duchak explained how the Echo program allowed him to better understand the call of vocation.

“Echo is for lay single people or people who are dating/discerning marriage,” he said. “I feel like I can start to see what a vocation actually is…. In Echo, I’m working alongside parents of 30 years. I went on a retreat with someone who had been married for almost 40 years. I get to be with people in their vocations and understand what is a father? What is a husband? I’ve also gotten to work really closely with the priests, and I get to see what does it mean to be a shepherd? A pastor? A father-figure? So, that has been really helpful. It allows me to see myself in my vocation after Echo.”

The two Echo apprentices will graduate from the program on July 1.

“It just has flown by,” Mr. Duchak said. “It’s making me sad, but all good things have to come to an end.”

His roommate has similar sentiments.

“It’s bittersweet,” Mr. Dompkowski acknowledged. “I think it’s actually like the more you spend your time in the school, the more time you invest, it gets harder to leave because you think, oh, I still want to do more. I have more that I could do here or for the students or for the community.”

Kelly Deehan, an Echo Graduate Service Program graduate, is now associate director of religious education at All Saints Parish.

A ‘return to this community’

There are a variety of career paths for Echo apprentices after they graduate the program. Some remain in their placement location, receiving a full-time offer at a school or parish. Others work in ministry in a different diocese or closer to their home.

Kelly Deehan graduated from the Echo program in 2021, participating in the parish apprentice track. Her placement within the Diocese of Knoxville was at All Saints Parish.

As an apprentice, Ms. Deehan was able to experience the “whole breadth of parish life” with her mentor, Carrie Manabat, who is the director of religious education and faith formation at All Saints.

“I worked a lot in my two years as an apprentice with our traditional faith formation classes for kids first through fifth grade, and then I spent a lot of time with our youth ministry program for middle school and high school, and also did work with catechists on doing catechist formation programs and other adult formation opportunities, such as small groups, Bible studies, putting on some retreats, different liturgical things as well,” she explained.

After graduating from Echo, Ms. Deehan moved to Chicago and worked as a campus minister for a parish elementary school for over a year.

“I moved back here in September 2022 to become a full-time staff member as the associate director of faith formation here at All Saints,” she said.

“It has been wonderful to return to this community and both have a great background and relationship already existing here. I really enjoy working in the parish,” she continued. “I really love getting to work with just such a variety of ages and entire families as working on a parish staff versus in a school or in other environments, and really like having this faith community to work with, get to know, and nurture here.”

Ms. Deehan believes it is worth the time and consideration of young people to look into the Echo program.

“I think that you can see in Echo a real genuine concern and love for the Church that Notre Dame is able to put so much investment into us and into this program to really serve the Church and raise up leaders for the Church,” she shared. “I would say that, talk to people who know the program, and the process of applying for it is also a wonderful opportunity for discernment, to have these conversations and see if this is where God is calling you to be or just greater clarity on if that is meant to be somewhere else.”

When Ms. Deehan was looking for master’s programs, she chose Echo because it was not solely an academic program.

“The program of Echo, I think, is a really wonderful design in both the academic, the spiritual, and the practical formation of it. It’s definitely pretty unique,” she said. “I think, as part of that, is also just this community, both the community I found here in Knoxville with where I work in the diocese but also just the way that Echo is designed. It’s pretty small and the staff members who work for Echo are very wonderful and sort of hands-on in taking care of us and guiding us through this experience of our education and also entering into the world of working for the Church and working full-time in ministry.”

“I felt very supported and guided and well cared for in this experience to really figure out what it would mean to work for the Church and grow as a minister in the Church and be supported in my specific interests and gifts and finding them,” Ms. Deehan said.

Ms. Deehan thinks that Echo is “such an awesome opportunity for the diocese.”

“Just to have the opportunity to have these students come into the diocese, even though it’s often for just a short time, but I think in many ways can add a lot of creativity and hope. People love seeing young people in the Church,” she said.

Three new Echo apprentices will come to Knoxville in the fall to begin their parish or school tracks. To learn more about the Echo Graduate Service Program, visit mcgrath.nd.edu/service-learning.

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