25 Sep A Visit to St Thomas More
Article and Photos by Penny Silvers
The rooster crowed, its exultant cry piercing through the stillness of the Prayer of Consecration. It was the first school Mass of the new academic year, and all around me students were kneeling, their young faces registering a mixture of perplexity and curiosity. “It was a moment filled with theological richness,” reflected Headmaster Deacon Brad Watkins later as we strode through the halls of St Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.
It is also part of the daily life at the academy. Gardening, raising chickens, and cooking classes teach students stewardship and care for the gift of creation. Issues in modern agricultural techniques and the ethics of world food production are discussed within the framework of the curriculum. STMA is the only classical school with a Future Farmers of America chapter with a membership of 60 students.
A visit to St Thomas More
When I arrived, sprucing-up was underway. We passed newly-installed wooden wainscoting, and rounding a corner, we found berry red walls. And round another, orange sherbet. And still another, kale green. Workers were in the new chapel were working diligently to complete installation of wiring and furnishings.
In 2002, a group of Catholic laymen inspired with a desire to instill an authentic Catholic identity in their children founded the academy with the help of benefactor, Robert Luddy, a Raleigh businessman.* Employing the “Three C's” (‘Catholic, Classical, and College preparatory’) St. Thomas More Academy since its inception has become recognized not only for its excellent pedagogy, but also for inspiring students to deepen their faith.
St. Thomas More Academy serves students from North Carolina’s Piedmont, many of whom commute from outlying towns and cities. In the last four years, the school has seen significant growth and now boasts a student population of 200. The academy’s statistics are impressive: 100% college placement and in 2015 scholarships awarded totaling US$8.1 million.
Joyful and Faithful
The environment is palpably different from what one normally encounters in schools; there is a joyful energy so evident on the faces of students. Headmaster Deacon Brad Watkins attributes that sense of joy to the deliberate cultivation of a culture of charity–loving God leads to loving one's neighbor.
When asked what they enjoyed most, students unhesitatingly point to the freedom that they have to practice their faith freely. School Masses, weekly Confession, First Friday Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Morning Prayer, and Angelus Prayer make up the spiritual formation of students in a seamless way.
Katherine Kennedy, Class of 2015, now a freshman at Franciscan University, says STMA enabled her to integrate the Catholic faith in all aspects of learning. “I was encouraged to understand the Catholic Faith and participate in the holy sacraments.” Miss Kennedy is the latest recipient of the academy’s Caritas Award given to the student who most exemplifies the Catholic Faith.
Of the 29 seminarians for the Diocese of Raleigh, four are graduates of St. Thomas More Academy. Austin Faur, in priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, said, “Our teachers really believed what they taught, were excited about their faith, and lived out what they taught in class.” John Guzman, second year college at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia credits the faith-filled environment that helped him pursue discernment to the priesthood. “The reverence that people expressed when referring to the Catholic Faith allowed me to realize that God's love and friendship is much more important than the material things this world provides.”
“Overcoming the infection of the spirit of the age becomes very real in teaching students how to think beyond the 140-character social media milieu.”
Inoculation against a Toxic Culture
St Thomas More’s intellectually challenging curriculum was created by Dr. Wesley Kirkpatrick, Dean of Students, who explains that “by their senior year, students will have encountered over 100 books of the Western canon.”
This curriculum was developed from deep roots in the classical and medieval traditions. The Socratic Method with its form of inquiry and discussion takes “pride of place in the curriculum,” according to Dr. Kirkpatrick. It is a method that nurtures critical thinking. The challenges of the modern world steeped as it is in value relativism and scientific naturalism, Dr. Kirkpatrick says, are the most pressing intellectual challenges that face students today.
St Thomas More Academy is a place where students are inoculated from the toxic culture by being grounded in the Truth. The teaching staff has a committed sense of evangelization of the young, Deacon Watkins explained. Overcoming the infection of the spirit of the age becomes very real in teaching students how to think beyond the 140-character social media milieu.
Dr. Jake Noland, Supervising Instructor, notes that in Logic students learn the skill of precision of thought. Recognizing where modern culture has infected their thinking, says Dr. Noland, is part and parcel of his teaching duties. He also coaches the Debate Team, and in training the debaters, uses the model of St. Thomas Aquinas' thesis and anti-thesis. Rather than relying on cleverness in argumentation, Dr. Noland considers this way of disputation a deeper way of reasoned argument.
Upper level classes in Moral Theology, Bioethics, and Catholic Traditions in Economics train STMA students to confront the modern culture. In a time where great pressure is placed on the Catholic Church to yield to modernism, these students learn what is the perennial teaching of the Church. In their senior year, students are required to compose a 4,000-word thesis drawing upon advanced topics in humanities and science. For this year's seniors, the topics are “Scientific Revolution” and “1945”– post-war Germany and Japan.
Such rigorous training, says Seminarian De Guzman, prepared him well for seminary studies. He is much more at ease in tackling his courses because of the education he received at STMA. Upper classmen comment that their course of study gave them greater facility in taking SAT tests, especially in the language sections where the grounding in Latin prepared them well.
Raising Chickens and Caritas
A unique aspect of training for the whole person are classes in Agriculture taught by Mrs. Katherine Kirkpatrick. Gardening, raising chickens, and cooking classes teach students stewardship and care for the gift of creation. Issues in modern agricultural techniques and the ethics of world food production are discussed within the framework of the curriculum. STMA is the only classical school with a Future Farmers of America chapter; they have 60 students who are members. The program grew from Deacon Watkins' vision for an unused portion of the school property.
Just outside the classroom windows where students are engaged in translating classical texts, chickens frolic in their coops amid raised garden beds being prepared for new plantings. The school has donated hundreds of pounds of produce and eggs to Catholic Parish Outreach and Inter Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh.
Each year, students engage in apostolic work outside the academic setting. The training in charity toward one's neighbors is extended to the greater community. From assisting at a local preschool to serving at homeless shelters, and helping the elderly to assisting in construction for Habitat for Humanity, students engage in corporal works of mercy.
The Faith of the Teachers
At STMA, the staff takes very seriously their own practice of the Catholic Faith.
Literature teacher Christina Geradts completed a month's hike on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela last summer. When asked how she would incorporate this experience into her teaching, she responded, “Life is a pilgrimage toward God.” In literature, she says, one encounters characters that teach the virtues through their positive choices made by protagonists or how to not to act from anti-heroes and antagonists. In her fourth year now, Miss Geradts appreciates the latitude she has to weave Catholic thought into her classes.
In terms of day-to-day challenges in running the school, Deacon Watkins explains that to keep tuition affordable, the staff is small, and each is asked to do many tasks. And with the fierce culture wars waging in the world, he asked for prayer support so that the enemy may not frustrate the mission of the school in forming the minds and hearts of young people in the Wisdom, Charity, and Truth.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam (‘ To the greater glory of God’) are the words by which each student passes each school day. These words bespeak the orientation and mission of the academy: to form the minds and hearts of young people toward God.
*Though it is an independent Catholic academy, STMA operates with recognition from the Diocese of Raleigh.