Saint Rocco School, an urban Catholic grade school and childcare center in Cleveland, Ohio, needed a principal in mid-November last year when the current principal received a job offer he could not rightly refuse. He and the pastor of Saint Rocco Parish asked me to come out of semi-retirement and finish the school year until a search committee could be formed and a new principal take over. I had no previous experience in elementary education, as I had taught high school Theology for thirty-five years, but I accepted the position of interim principal – and the pseudo-intellectual became the pseudo-administrator!
Now that I have finished the assignment, many kind people have asked me: What was it like? Did I enjoy it? Am I glad it’s over? This column is my chance to give a more thorough answer than I usually can in conversation. Writing it also gave me the opportunity to reflect more deeply and prayerfully on my experience.
Saint Rocco Parish is located on the Near West Side of Cleveland and was established in 1922 through the zeal of the Italian immigrants who predominated in the neighborhood. They built the first church with their own hands. The school opened in 1927.
The demographics of the neighborhood have changed over the years. Its current ethnicity seems to be accurately reflected in the enrollment of the school, which is approximately 60% Puerto Rican, 20% black, and 20% white. These are only estimates, though. Quite a few students are multi-racial, which is a beautiful thing since it shows that people can be motivated by love instead of political correctness, which is obsessed with rigid racial identity. Only about half of the students are baptized Catholics.
Saint Rocco has one classroom for each grade, Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. There were roughly 135 students, but the number fluctuated as some of them came and went during the year. The Childcare Center had 20 children in three age-based groups: toddlers, 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds.
Saint Rocco proves that ethnic and religious diversity do not have to weaken Catholic identity, as happens in so many purportedly Catholic schools.
It was a blessing that St. Rocco’s has a pastor who assents to all Catholic doctrine. The priests always celebrated Mass and Adoration as they should be celebrated. The parochial vicar was just as faithful to doctrine and liturgical rubrics as the pastor. As a result of such strong leadership, no one took liberties with the Catholic Faith. No one called “Catholic” whatever they felt like calling “Catholic”.
One of the highlights of my time at Saint Rocco was when the pastor, while celebrating the Ordinary Form of the Mass for the First Communion class, said the Eucharistic Prayer ad orientem, that is, facing the tabernacle, not the people. It was especially powerful when he elevated the Host and the Chalice during the Consecration.
It was also a blessing to get to know the priests’ religious order, a group of men with whom I had been unfamiliar. They are members of the Order of Mercy, more commonly known as the Mercedarians. Originally founded in the year 1218 by St. Peter Nolasco to buy back Catholics taken into slavery by Muslims (more in number than black Africans taken into slavery by Europeans), Mercedarians have served Saint Rocco Parish since 1924.
There were many strong traditions of prayer and worship during my tenure at the school. For example, every school day began and ended with school-wide prayer, which included the Hail Mary. The entire school attended Mass each Wednesday and on the First Friday of every month. The priests made Confession available to Catholic students the Thursday before every First Friday. Every week the priests held a Benediction service with the students, offered in conjunction with the Novena to Our Lady of Mercy.
Most importantly, all students received daily instruction in the Catholic Faith based on a textbook series that is orthodox.
To be genuinely Catholic means being immersed in the Catholic view of human nature, which is the fullness of truth about humanity. The mix of students at Saint Rocco verified the reality that human nature is what it is, regardless of “race, color, or creed.”
I met so many great kids at Saint Rocco. There was something lovable about each student, yet, each needed to grow in virtue and maturity in order to become the person God wants him or her to be. While clearly being made in the image and likeness of God, each student was in need of salvation from Original Sin with its accompanying weaknesses that take individual form in everyone. Each student had a free will to overcome fallen human nature or not. The same can be said of the parents and guardians, some of whom are the most heroic people I have ever met.
It did not take long for me to see that the kids at Saint Rocco are growing up in the same eroticized and pornographic culture as their suburban peers. Whether in the city or the suburbs, the internet gives kids—even in the primary grades—an unprecedented access to debauched things that at one time were beyond the wildest imagination of a great majority of Americans. Not so long ago, there was a widespread consensus among adults to preserve the sexual innocence of children.
Every student in St. Rocco’s school needed, and often wanted, structure and routine, which enabled them both to know what to expect from the adults at the school and to know what was expected of them by those adults.
I could give other examples of how my experiences at Saint Rocco confirmed the objective truth of Catholic doctrine, but I should spend the time paying homage to the stellar faculty and staff.
Faculty and Staff
Every day at Saint Rocco I was inspired by the dedication of the faculty, which included not only full-time classroom instructors and intervention specialists, but also part-timers: technology, music, physical education, Spanish, and art teachers, and a reading specialist. We also had an all-star team of non-teachers: the custodian, the kitchen staff (who served breakfast and lunch to every student every day), the nurse, the counselors, the speech therapists, and the financial liaison with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. We were also blessed to have many committed volunteers: women from the Christ Child Society who gave up their Mondays to staff the library, and a group of retired high school classmates who gave up their Thursday mornings to tutor remedial students. There were also student volunteers from a local high school who were a great help in many ways.
High praise goes, especially, to our omni-competent Office Manager, who functioned as administrative assistant, phone-answerer, door-opener, temperature-taker, and giver of band aids and ice packs when the nurse was not there. Essentially, she was co-principal to the amateur principal with whom she had to work. She and I were the entire administration, and I could not have survived a day without her. (I also received invaluable help from a host of people on the diocesan level.)
The faculty and staff clearly cared about every student, even those who cooperated with them the least. There was not a single teacher who fit the stereotype of the petty, capricious tyrant who hates kids but is in education due to an inability to face reality and deal with other adults. In his or her own style, each adult at Saint Rocco lovingly challenged students to get the foundation necessary for career success, personal fulfillment, and eternal salvation. The faculty and staff did an exemplary job of “hating the sin but loving the sinner.”
It never ceased to amaze me how well the adults knew the students, including the students for whom they were not personally responsible. If I needed to know a kid’s name, personal characteristics, where or with whom he or she lived – the kinds of details that make a school a community – I could ask just about any adult at any time. The faculty did an excellent job of staying in regular contact with parents and guardians as well.
One of the things I most valued about the adults at Saint Rocco was their honesty, which I have found to be a precious commodity anywhere. I did not detect the scheming, manipulating, phoniness, back-biting, passive-aggressiveness, favoritism, and other game-playing that plagues other organizations.
I also valued the common sense of the adults at Saint Rocco. As many educators have traded the pursuit of objective truth for pop-psychologizing and social engineering as the purpose of schools, it has become more difficult to find educators who have common sense. Thankfully, the adults at Saint Rocco are grounded in reality.
The collegiality shown by the adults to each other in so many ways was most impressive. They never hesitated to help each other in any need. I will be forever grateful for their cheerful cooperation and for the initiative they took to compensate for my lack of experience.
Answers to the Original Questions
What was it like? It was sometimes intense and often challenging. The essence of the challenge was that, as my skill set grew, so did my irrelevance. The more I learned how to be a principal, the more I had to get out of the way of the next principal.
Did I enjoy it? Yes! At least when I was not worried that I was doing more harm than good. Besides the good experiences I have already shared, there is much I will miss, only some of which are these gifts: watching new teachers accepting challenges as they grew into the job; watching veteran teachers show their mastery; the absolutely charming singing of the Second Graders who out-sung the rest of the School; the affection of the youngest students; the friendliness and cooperation of the older students; seeing students with cognitive or behavioral issues making noticeable improvement; the dedication of the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima; the baptism of three students; sharing First Confession and First Holy Communion with the Second Grade; sharing graduation with the Eighth Grade; the joyful response to the randomly announced dress-down day; the hilarious venting among us adults when kids were not around; my daughter arranging for her company’s community service day to be at the school (and getting to watch her paint a hallway while in my principal clothes); and—most of all—being the one with the power of powers to call snow days!
Am I glad it’s over? I am glad for Saint Rocco, which is now getting an accomplished principal whose stated goal is to make Saint Rocco the premier Catholic grade school on Cleveland’s West Side. Saint Rocco’s future looks very bright under her leadership.
I am also glad for myself in some ways. I am now able to go to Mass every morning with my wonderful wife and can create each day more freely. It was against my nature to tread lightly and make as few changes as possible; but that was what I needed to do for the sake of the students, their parents and guardians, the faculty and staff, and the new principal. I did not like being so clueless at times. I regret not being able to sink my teeth into curriculum and pedagogy. Had I been younger and more adequately trained for the position, I would have liked to manage the upcoming accreditation to show that it can be a minimally onerous process with meaningful results. Hmm. Maybe the ideal Catholic school is the topic for a future column.
Our Lady of Mercy, pray for us!
Saint Peter Nolasco, pray for us!
Saint Rocco, pray for us!