‘Teaching Jesus to our students’

It’s not just a job; it’s a ministry; educators encouraged to keep up the good work

By Gabrielle Nolan

Nearly 370 Catholic school educators and administrators representing all 10 Diocese of Knoxville schools gathered on Feb. 20 at Sacred Heart Cathedral School for their annual professional-development day.

The event included Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a keynote speaker, and a networking lunch featuring guided discussions for specific grade levels, content areas, and staff positions.

Catholic schools superintendent Mary Ann Deschaine, Ed.S., led the opening prayer and introduction.

“I have the honor and privilege of being the superintendent for the Diocese of Knoxville,” she said. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. Thank you for being the professionals that you are and for saying yes to this Catholic school ministry. It is not an easy ministry, and what you are in is a ministry; it’s not a job. You said yes to something that goes beyond the scope of opening up textbooks, preparing assessments.”

Mrs. Deschaine acknowledged that the school communities have faced extreme issues involving parents, students, and communities this year.

“No matter what that extreme issue was in our school communities, what held us together was you. You are the glue, you are the backbone of our Catholic schools. It’s not the superintendent, it’s not the [people] at the Chancery, it’s you. You are a dedicated staff who have been consistent in your commitment to our students, to our schools, and to our faith communities,” she said.

“It is your professionalism, it is your sense of justice and the belief in who we are as a Catholic school community grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ that is providing a solid foundation for our students at our school communities,” Mrs. Deschaine continued. “For that commitment to Catholic school education, I say thank you. You are who make us, us. The collective us. A dedicated community preparing souls for the kingdom. … We prepare souls for the kingdom.”

Mrs. Deschaine shared that when she was offered the job as superintendent, one of the questions she asked was what was expected of her.

“And the reply I received was ‘teach Jesus.’ You do that. I don’t do that in the same sense you do, do I? But you teach Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, non-Catholic. You’re Christian. What matters is that you’re teaching Jesus to our students. And that’s what we do,” she said. “I do just want to say thank you. Thank you for teaching Jesus, and please know that you are appreciated, that you are loved, respected, and that everything that you do is for the glory of God.”

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Knoxville, was unable to attend the event in-person but joined for a live Zoom call to share his sentiments with the Catholic school educators.

“I am grateful for this opportunity, for Zoom, to address you, you who give yourselves so generously and sacrificially in the ministry of Catholic education,” the archbishop said. “Catholic education, as you may know, in most if not in all dioceses, is the largest ministry that the Church engages in in a diocese. And by Catholic education I certainly mean parish schools of religion and youth formation, but most of that is accomplished through Catholic schools, and I thank you for your dedication as administrators and faculty and staff at Catholic schools for your great sacrifice.”

Archbishop Fabre looked at the Latin roots of the word sacrifice, which means to “make holy.”

“And so, I believe your sacrifice in Catholic education is an effort to make holy the lives of the young people whose families entrust them to Catholic education,” he said.

The archbishop shared that when he conducts confirmations, he tells the candidates to “be loud and proud and be bold” when they recite the promises of baptism.

“Proud in the best sense of that word, not the sinful sense of that word. Because that ‘I do’ has to echo throughout the rest of their lives. And I think your role in Catholic education is similar to that. What you impart to these students and what they learn … hopefully it will echo throughout the rest of their lives, calling them continually to be the person whom God calls us to be,” he said.

“So, with sincere gratitude, I thank you very much for the sacrifice that you undertake to make holy the students whom, in so many ways, you form in faith and educate so that their faith formation and their experiences in Catholic schools can in a positive way echo throughout the rest of their lives, so that they might always return to this really foundational time in their lives as they grow in age and wisdom and grace before God and all people and become adults within the Church and adults within the country,” the archbishop continued.

“I thank you for your role, and in this largest ministry in the Diocese of Knoxville I thank you for the sacrifice that you undertake, and I thank you for the ways that every day you are a reflection of the love of God with the students entrusted to your care. I thank you for the many ways that you are a reflection of the love of God to the parents and families who entrust their children to Catholic education. I thank you for the fact that every day you are the reflection of the Diocese of Knoxville, of our call to accompany one another, joining with one another, and journeying to the person that Jesus Christ calls each and every one of us to be,” he said.

Following the archbishop was the keynote speaker, Sheri Wohlfert.

Mrs. Wohlfert was an educator for nearly 30 years in both Catholic and public schools, teaching almost every grade between kindergarten and senior year in high school. She has a degree in secondary education from Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan., and a master’s degree in elementary education from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Mrs. Wohlfert resides in Michigan with her husband and maintains her website, joyfulwords.org.

Mary Ann Deschaine, left, and Sheri Wohlfert shared words of wisdom with Diocese of Knoxville educators on Feb. 20 during the annual professional-development day at Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Knoxville. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

“Mary Ann (Deschaine) very succinctly said at the very beginning, this is not your job, this is your vocation. You were called to this. … God called us to this work not just for our students or our parents, but for our self. Our vocation is our sanctification. This is, my friends, how we’re going to get to heaven. This is it. And for one of us it should probably be a straight shot. I’ve had that class many times,” Mrs. Wohlfert quipped, causing the crowd to laugh.

She used a very long white rope that had a short green end for a demonstration.

“Imagine for a minute, that stretch between me and the edge of the gym, this timeline represents our life. We know as God-fearing Christians that our life is eternal, and there would never really be an end. … So, this is your life, from beginning to on and on and on. … As life is stretched out before me, I want you to turn your focus to this little green piece of the rope. This is the part that represents our time on earth, and the rest of it is what happens next. And I know two things, for real and for true. One, we have no idea how long the green part of our rope is. And the second thing I know for real and for true, is that we don’t get a do-over. And how we do [the green part] is completely what determines [the white part]. Now what do we do? We try to get it right. Thank God for Lent; we can recalibrate,” she said.

“There’s no message more important than the one we get to spend every day instilling in the hearts and souls and minds of children, God’s favorites,” she continued. “We have to get it together first. We have to realize what’s our green look like, and where’s it going to indicate my white to be? And today’s the perfect day to look at the green. … That’s totally in our control. We get to do all the things in the green part of our rope, but what should we be doing with it? How should it look? By virtue of our work, you are called to God’s greatest commandment. You are called to serve.”

Mrs. Wohlfert shared a story of a small village in France that acquired a handmade statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. During World War II, the church was bombed, breaking the statue so that when the villagers put all of the broken pieces back together, only Jesus’ hands were missing. Rather than fixing the statue, the villagers placed a plaque below it stating that ‘Christ has no hands but yours…’

“And I think as Catholic school educators, that’s our mission: to be the hands of Christ, to be the feet of Christ,” she said. “So, the real truth of our job as Christian educators is simply to see Christ and to be Christ. So, how do I make sure the green part of my rope is going to get me where I want it to be? It’s as simple as I’m going to serve. I’m going to serve whatever person He puts in our path, no matter how much they love me back, no matter how much they agree with me or don’t, no matter how difficult or wonderful they are. I’m going to see Christ and I’m going to be Christ. It’s my mission, that’s my mission. Either we learn to find our Lord in the ordinary everyday life, or else we shall never find him, St. Josemaria (said).”

“Our living is the most powerful witness we offer. Experiencing His love and being His great witness requires understanding and truth, perspective, joy, love, and prayer,” Mrs. Wohlfert added.

She shared one way teachers can witness to their faith each school year.

“Every year before school started, I would sit at each child’s desk, and I would bless it with holy water. If you have never done that, start tomorrow. … Sit in it, bless it, pray for that child, and pray that you can be the teacher that child needs. It’s not just about them being the way we want them to be, it’s help me be what they need,” she shared.

“Whose job is it to teach not just who Jesus is and what He did, but what He’s still doing?” Mrs. Wohlfert asked. “Whose job is that? That’s ours. And that’s just not a job, that’s a gift. That’s a vocation. That’s a vocation that changes lives, but it requires focus. It requires us to see things differently, to see things as He sees them. A godly perspective is based in faith, and the faith sees the invisible, it believes the incredible, and receives the impossible.”

Following the keynote and Mass, educators attended their grade- or content-level networking sessions, which this year included four special genres:

  • Hospitality ministry for administrative assistants, receptionists, and secretaries, led by Mrs. Wohlfert;
  • Admissions, advancement, and stewardship, led by Mary Hannah MacCurdy, Catholic diocesan schools development coordinator;
  • Bookkeepers, led by Lori Trikones, diocesan controller; and
  • Northwest Evaluation Association presentation, led by senior account executive Jessica Knierim-Lindsay.

Catherine Clifford and Kate Roden of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School traveled from Chattanooga to attend the daylong event.

“Today’s event gives us an opportunity to get together, to get to know each other, to see what’s working in schools, to see what hasn’t worked in the past, and just again to grow in our mission to bring up our students forward in a Catholic education,” said Ms. Clifford, who serves as director of development for the school.

Ms. Roden serves as director of admissions for OLPH.

“It was a great event,” she commented. “The keynote speaker was awesome, she was funny, had a lot of good messaging, and then the breakout session was super helpful just getting to hear from other schools and what they’re doing to help the admission and enrollment in their schools.”

“I grew up in a Catholic school, I have my kids in a Catholic school, and so transitioning into an admissions role into this Catholic school, I know what the faith is all about,” she continued. “I know what they teach in our schools, and it just helps me to sell the school really, because I know how I grew up and how my kids are growing up, and I want it for every kid that comes through our school.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *