A John Paul II-inspired Catholic education
By Matt Abbott
The following is a slightly edited version of a talk given by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, director of development for Trinity Academy in Pewaukee, WI. Many thanks to Dr. Mitchell for providing me with the text of her talk; she is a remarkable person.
Catholic Education: On the Front Lines of Communicating the Faith
Professional Challenges and Eternal Rewards
Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, Ph.D.
School of Institutional Social Communications
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross
I speak to you today as an alumnus of Santa Croce. I came to Rome in 1997 to begin what became a six year stay in the Eternal City. During my time here I earned my Licentiate in Social Communications, my doctorate in Social Communications, and had the privilege of working for three years at the Vatican Information Service of the Holy See Press Office. (First as a Marketing Intern - expanding the services internet visibility and subscription levels, and then as a full-time English-language translator of the daily edition). I also enjoyed the opportunity to work as an English-language translator at the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano newspaper, and for various Pontifical Councils throughout the Vatican, as I completed my doctoral degree.
I return to Rome as the director of development for the past three years of Trinity Academy, in Wisconsin, USA. Trinity Academy was founded in 1997 as an independent Catholic school, offering grades K-8. In my time at the school, Trinity has opened its first Office of Communications, of which I am the director, expanded to add a high school, and built a classroom building and Eucharistic Chapel edition to its campus. In recent months, the students and faculty of Trinity Academy have earned international visibility in such outstanding publications as Time magazine's U.S. and European editions, the popular "Famiglia Cristiana" magazine, television coverage on National and Local News Channels, and produced a segment on EWTN"s "Life on the Rock" program, dedicated to our Catholic educational model, and the co-founding of a sister model school in LaCroose, WI, which opened its doors in September of 2005.
How did all of this come about? Through many professional challenges, and a determination to achieve the Eternal Rewards of educating souls for Christ - forming our future communicators of the faith to the modern world.
• Professional Challenges
Let's begin with the challenges. The reasons why it can't be done. Not now, not by me, not on this scale, maybe next year, maybe someone else could do it better.
The encouraging answer which I have received to this doubts and protests has been: begin now, start here. My mother, who teaches religion to our Junior and Senior high school students often tells them: "You are God's best." If you are not going to go forth and become the witnessed of Christ in the next millennium, who will? If God does not have you, who does He have? No one. There is not someone, some group, some set of alumni or professionals out there who are going to do it better or more faithfully than you, than us.
We are God's best. He has given us this degree for His purposes - and the apparent challenges must not hinder us from making a beginning - begin now, start here.
It is this call that my own parents answered when they founded Trinity Academy almost ten years ago - in our own home with 17 students. My father felt the call to leave private education in a well-respected Academy to begin an "independent Catholic school. A school founded and funded entirely by lay people seeking the best in Catholic education for their children - faith teaching Scripture, the Catechism, the lives of the Saints, along with a top academic curriculum in literature, mathematics, history, the sciences.
This new school quickly outgrew our home, and, in a few short, months, had taken up residence at the Sunday school facility of a local Episcopal church. With some painting and furniture the happy band of close to 35 students and faculty began classes in this new facility on December 12, 1997, and we have taken Our Lady of Guadalupe as the school's foundational patroness ever since.
The school continued to grow - families from all over the city, seeking authentic Catholic education, many of whom had been teaching their children in their homes, enrolled their children. The school continued to see a 30% annual growth rate, and within two years, in 1999, the school moved to its current location in Pewaukee, WI, on a 25 acre campus at the site of the former Sts. Peter and Paul Parish.
• (My Role)
When I returned home to join the staff of Trinity Academy, in 2003, the school was ready for a professional Development Director. Our growth by word of mouth had launched the school and seen it grow. The school was ready to move into the next phase of its life.
One of our greatest professional challenges was, and continues to be:
Many of you work on the smallest of budgets. The revenue of your institution goes to daily operations, and anything, I mean anything, extra must be done at little or no cost to the institution. This is where creativity and hard work come into play.
The first thing a good Communications Director, working on a tight budget, does is decide: Who do I know? Who do I know who can help us in this need - either financial, technical, or in simple manpower. My very last option will always be to pay to have something done - my first, second, and third options are: do it myself, have it done by a capable volunteer, have it sponsored by a generous individual.
Do it myself: Know your limits and your personal potential. There are many aspects of running a communications office that I have been professionally trained for. These are first and foremost always my responsibility. The institution pays me to work for them in order not to pay outside sources to do the same work.
Organize your time. There is the old adage "Time is money." If you know you have a large project coming up, break it into smaller aspects, in order to have time to complete the full project. One of the best ways I save our institution money on a weekly basis is in printing our weekly Newsletter myself overnight. To have 150 color copies of this Newsletter printed by a printing shop would cost upwards of $150 a week. Multiply this times 36 weeks in a school year, and we have saved $5,400. We are able to grant a scholarship to one more student - one more soul is able to be formed, if you will, simply by organizing my time in the smallest of tasks.
Last rule of thumb: Never sacrifice professional quality to budget. The amount you will lose in loss of quality cannot be re-paid. One example: our school Web site. When I arrived Trinity Academy had a Web site which had been made by a volunteer. One of the first things I did as communications director was to remove this site from the Web and replace it with an "Under Construction" sign. I knew that poor quality communication was even worse than no communication. So, for a period of six months, visitors to our Web site found that we were updating our site.
The next question was: How best to re-create the site. I invested a good deal of time in researching other high-quality sites which had the look we wanted. I visited the Web sites of every independent school in the area. Those who were currently producing the academic product we were working to produce with a Catholic element. Having found the design I wanted, I contacted a professional Web design company. I knew that my Web design skills were not of the caliber needed to make the most-professional looking site. And this was what we wanted: a very professional first view of our school to all Internet guests.
The design company quoted me a price that we not able to accept. They generously offered an educational discount, and small as it was, the reduced price was still beyond our means. Two months later, the Web design company offered to build our site entirely free of charge. They believed in our school's mission, and they hoped that the publicity our site would give to them would bring increased business to their company. We publicized their generous proposal, love the site they created for us, and hope they have received many blessings in return for their generosity. We now host our Web site and email through their company, and long-term, they will earn much more from our monthly hosting fees then the site could have earned them. Think "win-win," as Stephen Covey and Professor Mora of Santa Croce urge, and you will be surprised every time!
Our second major challenge in development and communications is visibility. How do we let the greatest possible audience learn about our school?
The first question to answer becomes: Who is our audience?
- Our immediate school community
- Perspective families
- Supporters of Catholic/religious formation
- Supporters of academic/educational formation
The next question becomes: How do we best reach those audiences?
We begin at the core of the circle and work outwards.
To our own school community we began communicating weekly through a Trinity Times newsletter. This brings information about school news and events to our parents, families, faculty, and Board members. This weekly also provides a reflection on an aspect of the school which advances the school mission: from the annual Rome pilgrimage, to good manners, to the Liturgical season we are experiencing.
Perspective families are reached through our Open House events. These are afternoons four times a year when perspective families are invited to come and visit our campus, meet our teachers, make a first visit, and begin to get to know us. We send invitations in the mail to friends of the school, and we place advertisements in the Catholic and secular newspaper and on Catholic and secular radio.
These Open House events are our best source of new enrollments to the school, and we always enjoy the opportunity to bring the community to our campus to learn who we are and what we are doing.
Supporters of Catholic education and or academic formation are reached through a series of larger annual events sponsored by the school. Every fall, Trinity Academy hosts an evening "Fall Dinner" with a prominent Catholic leader as our guest speaker. This evening is about offering ongoing formation to our families as well as to a large segment of the wider community. Speakers at these events, such as Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Fr. John Hardon, S.J., Fr. Mitch Pacwa of EWTN, and Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, of the Bronx, NY, have received upwards of 500 guests. Events such as these communicate the school's vision, and gain visibility for our school throughout the area.
We have also spent time and effort in the creation of a visibility DVD and brochure to bring our school to the wider community. People have often said that you need to come to our campus to fully understand what Trinity Academy is all about. Our DVD was professionally produced at no charge by a parent of our community who runs Catholic Leadership workshops for a living. Our brochure, designed by a graphic designer as a paid cost of our development office. Both allow the wider community to "see" the school - increasing visibility beyond our campus.
And last, but certainly not least, benefactors. This is an important group. Perhaps besides those who benefit directly form your organization, the most important group to your institution. The best advice I have received with regard to donors is: cultivate relationships. There is nothing short-term about a serious benefactor.
They are, hopefully, a very long-term friend of your organization and supported of your institution. The way I see it, everyone related to your institution is a potential donor. This may occur in the most unlikely of ways. Donations do not only come in the form of million dollar checks - though I certainly would not complain if one came through the mail to us tomorrow! Donations come in all shapes and sizes. In the gift of volunteer effort and time, in the donation of a skill to your organization. At Trinity Academy, all of our technical and computer work is done by an expert in the field who is also a parent. Every annual event we hold is run by extremely capable and generous parent volunteers. We also have donors who support the school by the gift of a student scholarship, or a monetary donation to our building campaign. The support of benefactors is invaluable.
Create relationships. Thank your donors, large and small. Keep them informed of the progress of your institution and upcoming events. Acknowledge gifts in a timely manner, and most importantly, do not be afraid to ASK when you have a need. Just before I left the States to come to this talk my Office sent out a formal request for financial contributions to an upcoming campaign to renovate our main school building. We will need $100,000 to have this building renovated interiorly during the summer months. I sent a request not only to our families, but to 550 individuals who are in relationship to the school. They have attended an event, donated in the past, or are in some way related to our work. Ask - and you will be surprised what turns up.
St. JoseMaria Escriva: "Don't worry about the financial difficulties in store for your apostolic work - leave all to God. Do all human means permit and you will be surprised how soon money ceases to be a difficulty." ('The Way')
• Results and Eternal Rewards
Mother Teresa once said: "Little things are indeed little, but it is the little things which make the great things."
I have had the satisfaction in my three years as Communications Director of Trinity Academy to begin to see the results of our steady efforts. No effect will ever be seen over night. When I took this job, many people questioned my decision. Couldn't you do something bigger, something more important? I was convinced, however, through my work on St. Edith Stein for both my Licentiate and Doctoral degrees, that it was Catholic education which was at the front lines of Communicating the Faith. I felt that forming the next generation of Catholics to know and live their faith was the most important use I could make of my talents and professional formation.
I have spent three years doing what close friend of the school Fr. John McCloskey of Chicago calls "selling the invisible," and I have found that there is a market.
In the Fall of 2003, our current school facility was too small. We have opened a High School in response to demand for continuing Catholic education in the upper levels, and we had no space for the students. Our High School classes were being taught in temporary trailer facilities on the property. So, that fall we launched a one million dollar Capital Campaign to raise the funds to build a Four Classroom Eucharistic Chapel Building. With the growth of our school, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, had invited us to create a suitable space to house the Blessed Sacrament, and the growth of the High School necessitated more classroom space.
After a vigorous financial campaign, we broke ground in March of 2004, and the new building was opened for the start of classes in September of 2004. The payment for this project continues through monthly pledge donations of many families and friends of the school - and will continue to be a need and challenge that is well worth the effort. Just looking at these pictures of the building interior, and the beautiful Chapel space, show you how blessed we are to have our Lord in our midst!
In January of 2003, EWTN called to say that they would like to do segment on Catholic Education. My parents, older brother Fr. Peter Mitchell, and I traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to film a segment for the popular "Life on the Rock" series. The response which Trinity Academy received to this segment was overwhelming. Calls and emails were received from throughout the United States, and even as far abroad as Australia, from individuals who understood the importance of authentic Catholic education, and wanted to model our curriculum or mission.
A further fruit of this program has been an invitation to my parents to film a 13-part series on Catholic education for EWTN. This proposed series will be an excellent further vehicle for exposure of the school, as well as giving vital information to concerned parents and educators nationwide and beyond about the importance of Catholic education and the Trinity Academy model.
In the fall of 2005, the first sister school of Trinity Academy was opened in LaCrosse, Wis. A K-8 independent Catholic school, founded by laity, and using the Trinity Academy curriculum in its classroom. All of the teachers for this exciting endeavor, Providence Academy, were trained by us, and the school now has 45 students, and hopes to open a High School in the near future.
In the fall of 2005 I was also asked to join the board of directors of the Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., Media Apostolate. Founded by a group of laity in Chicago, IL, this media apostolate seeks to provide formation to the laity in the use of the social communications media for evangelization according to the norms of the Vatican II directive "Inter Mirifica." I have been serving this apostolate for just under a year now, and find the work both rewarding and challenging.
Also, in the fall of 2005, our Trinity Academy Advisory Board member, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, asked me to become the executive director to oversee the preliminary work to advance the proposed Cause for Canonization of Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., a saintly American Jesuit dedicated to Catholic education and catechesis. I was honored to begin this work, so directly tied to my own conviction in the importance of forming young people in the faith.
Perhaps the most moving result of our efforts at Trinity Academy, and the experience which best captures who we are and what we are about came in the spring of 2005 here in Rome.
In the spring of 2005 we brought a group of 33 students and faculty to Rome on pilgrimage for Holy Week. This is a tradition which began which I was a student here, and has continued every year for the past eight years. Our first group were six of those students you saw sitting at my dining room table!
This past year, however, the pilgrimage had a different focus, and one which would throw Trinity Academy into the local, national, and international spotlight. As you all know, on April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II died. The world media came to Rome to capture the story, and we quickly became a part of that story. Our students had prayed in vigil in St. Peter's Square on the evening before the Pope died, reciting the Rosary with the thousands of pilgrims and clerics gathered in the Square. In fact, the picture which Time magazine used as the centerfold picture for both its European and United States "Papal Commemorative" edition was a moving picture of three of our Trinity Academy praying in tears for their beloved Holy Father.
This picture has circulated the globe, evoking commentary from many corners of the world, and being used in many subsequent publications, such as Familigia Cristiana magazine, our local Milwaukee Journal Sentinel front page, and dozens of commemorative books written posthumously on the life of Pope John Paul II. Our students have become a symbol, or image, of the love of the youth of the world for the Pope. In fact, I wrote to the editor of Time magazine shortly after the picture appeared, and said to him:
'A note of congratulations on your excellent 'Commemorative Edition' coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II. I know with conviction that Time Magazine 'got the story.' How do I know? The young girl captured in the centerfold spread of your special edition, kneeling in prayer with tears streaming down her cheeks, eyes riveted on the Pope's window in St. Peter's square, is my sister, Maria Mitchell, age 16. The picture was taken near midnight on Friday, April 1st, the night the world kept vigil for the dying Pope.
'Maria and the young girl in green next to her had spent the entire day at St. Peter's - nearly 14 hours, praying and keeping company with our beloved Holy Father. 'No better place to be,' they both declared, realizing the grace they were being given. 'He gave so much to us, I was just glad to be able to give something back to him and to be there for him,' my sister told me as we marveled over her picture and your coverage. The tears in her eyes, the love in her heart, and the faith so plainly written on her face 'is' the story of John Paul II's papacy and parting.
'With Maria in prayer that night were 22 students and 5 faculty from Trinity Academy. We had traveled to Rome for our annual school Easter pilgrimage. We had had the gift of receiving the Pope's last Easter Blessing from his window on Sunday, we kept vigil with the world outside his window on Friday, we prayed and cried as we lost him on Saturday, and we rejoiced to venerate his body in the Basilica on Monday. What grace-filled days. What a story to relate.
'Thank you for understanding the story. Thank you for capturing the heart of a youth saying goodbye to her 'Papa.'
'Sincerely, Dr. Elizabeth A. Mitchell, Ph.D., Director of Development'
As Trinity Academy shared in the coverage of the Pope's death - we received visibility on many levels - from interviews with local and national television stations such as NBC, CBS, and CNN, to a four page article in our the Catholic Herald newspaper of our archdiocese, Trinity Academy was able to share the story with the world.
Local news coverage of the school has continued, and we have been pleased to offer interviews with Radio Maria international radio this past fall as well.
The most important lesson for me as a director of communications was this: You must be ready for the moment, and the moment will take care of itself. I could not invent faith-filled, devout, beautiful young people for the camera on the spot. They had to already exist. Our school had invested in their formation and they beautifully and powerfully "communicated the faith" to the world when the moment arrived. What a blessing!
As I continue my work at Trinity Academy, I know that the challenges will continue. I know that we need have an urgent need to continue to seeking donations for student scholarships, building projects, and the daily needs of our operating budget. I also know that our school motto "Providet Dominus," the Lord provides - is possibly the best possible motto for a Director of Communications.
Be ready, invest sincerely in an outstanding product, create relationships, know your specific audiences and communicate to them, think win-win, never sacrifice professional quality to budget, organize your time, know your limits and your personal potential, pray, work hard, and begin!
In doing so, you will succeed in communicating the Faith on the front lines of Catholic education or in whatever apostolate you serve.
As the Pope lay dying in the Apostolic Palace on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, 2005, it is quoted that he struggled a number of times to say something. With efforts, his aides were able to understand what he was saying:
"I have looked for you. Now you have come to me, and I thank you."
It is understood that Pope John Paul II was speaking this message to the many youth gathered outside his window in St. Peter's Square - the youth of the world whom he had personally formed in his international World Youth Days and in his boundless love for them and belief in their potential, and we know that he was speaking these words to the youth of Trinity Academy.
Pope John Paul II is our model in understanding the importance of Catholic education at the front lines of communicating the faith. The youth have responded - he looked for them and they have come. Our own youth responded in the Square on that day. They are ready to respond if we are willing to face the professional challenges it will take. Despite the many challenges, their formation is, in itself, an eternal reward. Thank you.
https://www.catholic.org IL, US
Matt Abbott - Author,
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