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Betsy Kneepkens: Catholic high school makes this Catholic Schools Week special

I am a proud alumnus of Nazareth Acadamy, a small Catholic college preparatory outside of Chicago, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. I loved my experience at Naz, as we called her. I was able to participate in whatever outside class experience I wanted. It was just a couple miles away from my home; often an early morning walk or late-night stroll got me back and forth.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I applied to Benet Academy, which would have been a 60-minute train ride, but my high school entrance exam scores were not high enough for acceptance. As an eighth-grader, I felt dejected, but I now know that Nazareth was a better place for me, and I think my parents knew it all the time.

While I attended Nazareth Academy, I had a brother that attended St. Ignatius college prep in downtown Chicago. He walked from our home to the train, then caught the bus and walked from the bus to St. Ignatius’ front doors. School came easy for my brother, and Ignatius was considered the most academically challenging school in the Chicago area. St. Ignatius was a Jesuit school. Although deemed the best of the best, it was located in a struggling neighborhood in downtown Chicago. My parents felt that Catholic education was the best education for my brother, so the location’s circumstances were worth what the school could offer my brother.

At the same time, I had a brother that attended St. Joseph High School about a 35-minute drive down the road. My brother took the bus for much of the time, but when I could use a family car, I could drop him off and still get to my school in time. St. Joseph did an excellent job with students who struggled in school but found success typically outside the classroom. Those activities, particularly on athletic teams, taught lessons equally important to these kids who struggled with academic pursuits. St. Joseph was the school featured in the movie “Hoops Dreams.” The Christian Brothers that sponsored St. Joe’s were responsible for saving many young inner-city boys from the grips of violence and gang life. I had a couple of brothers who attended this school, and the work of the Brothers helped shape them into fine young men even when all As and Bs were not really in their cards.

My older sister went to Mount Assisi, which was a Franciscan sponsored high school. And I had a sister who gave my parents a bit of trouble as a teenager, so they sent her to St. Mary’s boarding school outside the Chicago area. My parents were blessed with a variety of Catholic Schools, meeting the various needs of each of their unique and unrepeatable children. Of all the good things my parents tried to do for their children, selecting Catholic education was by far the one decision my siblings were most grateful for. The sacrifice was well worth the benefit.

When my husband and I established ourselves in northern Minnesota, that decision was made before kids, and I assumed there was a Catholic high school. There are only a handful of dioceses without Catholic secondary education, so my assumption was reasonable. We certainly knew a need existed for this sort of education in this area, so we anticipated that a school would open eventually.

We didn’t just sit around and hope. We tried to help organize. We participated on committees and came up with many creative options. We just were not successful. I did, however, pray for two decades for a Catholic high school to open up. When it wasn’t possible for my children, I continued to pray for the children that came after mine.

Catholic schooling is necessary to reinforce the formation strived for at home throughout the day. I maintain there is no better time in a child’s life for formal Catholic education than a youth’s high school years. I continued to pray after my kids aged out of high school, because it has become painfully apparent that Catholic schools are needed more now than ever in our country’s history. From my perspective, children are intentionally or unintentionally being redirected away from Christ in the schools.

The offer of fulfillment Christ offered us through a life lived in his church here and into eternity is being waylaid by activist education. When you listen to what children are learning in our schools, it seems fundamentals like reading, writing, math, and science are secondary to a narrative on how to live instead of tools to live. Public schools are no longer designed to serve parents’ educational expectations for their children. Instead, bureaucrats believe public education serves the community and what they want it to look like as these children grow to be voting members of the populace. In too many situations, parents’ voices are secondary to educational activisms which proclaim an agenda that leaves little room for morality ordered toward the good Christ offered.

God is faithful, and he doesn’t always answer our prayers as we see fit, and God always outgives us. Early this February, we celebrate Catholic Schools Week. This Catholic Schools Week is inspiring for me and is, as I see it, a “miracle.” In the fall of 2022, we won’t just have one Catholic high school in our diocese, we will have two, Mater Dei and Stella Maris high school. These Catholic high schools, although similarly Catholic, will offer different formats which will be able to suit the varying needs of students and families.

Having choices in Catholic education is a spectacular gift, because every family is different, and every child in every family is unique. My parents knew this and took advantage of what was offered to them. Not only will these schools serve Duluth, but they will also be able to serve those from the Diocese of Superior. For some, this might mean traveling longer, walking farther, or busing a distance, but the difference these schools will offer will be worth it. What has to be the most exciting of all is that with technology it won’t be long before an option for Catholic high school is available for every student in the Diocese of Duluth. How about that for having prayers answered?

My children were not blessed like my siblings were to attend Catholic high schools. My children don’t know what they missed, but I do. As we celebrate Catholic schools, I entrust the work to Holy Spirit. I pray that those who can are inspired to consider and choose Catholic education.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.