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How Local Catholic Schools Integrate Students of All Religions

How Local Catholic Schools Integrate Students of All Religions

Arthur Tobia is the father of three kids in New Rochelle and was brought up in an Italian-Catholic family. His wife is Jewish and his kids identify as Jewish, yet his two sons attend Iona Preparatory School—an all-boys Catholic school in New Rochelle.

Tobias says that when it was time for his older son to consider high schools, he was either going to continue attending public school or enroll in Iona Prep, where the elder Tobia had gone himself years earlier. But he did not know if the school would accept non-Catholic students until he had a conversation with a colleague who had been in the same situation: his wife and kids were Jewish, yet he sent his kids to Iona Prep.

The colleague was a member of the school’s board and said that at one point board members had asked, “Who do we admit into the school?” They decided that being Catholic was not required, opening the school to kids with different religious backgrounds.

Tobia and his wife then discussed sending their son to Iona Prep. They were concerned he might be teased or experience prejudice because he is Jewish. “She understood that I went there and that I valued my four years there and still do,” Tobia says. They came to an understanding and agreed to enroll him.

Four years later, Tobia’ son graduated from Iona Prep and thanked his parents for allowing him to go there.

Catholic School Policies

Edward O’Neill, the principal of the Upper School at Iona Prep, says that out of the 750 boys in ninth through 12th grades, 171 identify as not Catholic, which is approximately 23 percent of the student population. That number includes students who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu, as well as non-Catholic Christians. O’Neill says he believes non-Catholic students apply to Iona Prep because of the school’s values.

“Our values system is fairly clear, so people can identify with that,” O’Neill says. “We’re able to project a set of values of right and wrong, why we think kids should pursue their values and a good life.”

The school requires all students to take four years of a course in Catholic religion and to attend school Mass once per month. The class is just like any other course in that the students receive a grade and have homework, and while Mass attendance is mandatory, participation is not. “The guys don’t have to actively participate, but we do want them to be familiar with our liturgies and how we celebrate our religion,” O’Neill says. 

Many other Catholic schools have similar policies, in which non-Catholic students can enroll and must go to Mass, but are not forced to participate or share the same beliefs.

Maria Ljubich, the advancement director of St. Bernadette Catholic Academy in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, says 4 percent of the 400 students in pre-K through eighth grades are non-Catholic, but all participate in prayer and school Mass. “Religion is taught as a subject on a daily basis and prayer permeates our day,” Ljubich says.

Catholic students may prepare sacraments and non-Catholic students are welcome to help, but they do not have to receive them. Ljubich says no problems have come up from non-Catholic students and their families.

Jane Harrigan, the principal Our Lady of Mercy School in Hicksville, says approximately 31 students out of the 300 in pre-K through eighth grades identify as non-Catholic. She says some parents have asked questions about what it will mean for their child to receive an education in a Catholic school. “We talk about…what the child would be experiencing because especially with the little ones, they’re learning ABCs, numbers, and also prayer,” Harrigan says.

Students at Our Lady of Mercy School take a religion class, and though they are learning about the faith, they do not have to agree with it, Harrigan says. “If there are any places where perhaps our [religion] and theirs is not exactly the same, then the parents take it upon themselves to say [to their kids], ‘This is what you’re learning in the Catholic school, this is what we believe in. We’re respectful of both,’” Harrigan says.

Unlike Iona Prep and St. Bernadette Catholic School, tuition prices vary at Our Lady of Mercy School: Tuition is slightly cheaper for a Catholic student whose family attends a church in the diocese in Rockville Centre. The reasoning behind the difference is these families are already making monetary contributions to their Catholic church along with tuition, and some of that goes toward Our Lady of Mercy church, which is adjacent to the school.

Misconceptions, Debunked

In the beginning, Tobia’s eldest son was unsure about Mass and did not want to attend. “He was anxious about it because any time he had been to church, it was with me and it was a family setting,” Tobias says. 

At the school, all students are expected to get up and stand in line for communion, but they do not have to receive it. “It removes the stigma of, ‘Well, why aren’t you going up and going to communion?’” Tobia says.

If his son did not like Iona Prep, Tobia says he would not have enrolled his kids in any other Catholic school. His daughter is currently a senior at a public high school because she did not like the private school she and her parents considered. It’s a matter of researching the school and constantly checking in with your child, Tobia says. “[See] if there are any anxieties or concerns they may be having around the idea that they’re in a school different from their religion,” he advises. “A lot of kids are adjusting to high school life and religious differences may be just another part of that adjustment.”

O’Neill has been an educator at Catholic schools for 44 years and attended one as a student 50 years ago. Catholic schools used to be viewed as extremely rigid, he admits, with an emphasis on discipline and order. But, he says, educators’ mindsets have changed in the past 20 years because a lot of them are modernizing and adapting to the times.

“The older approach was ‘Here’s a group of kids and everybody is going to conform,’” O’Neill says. “At some point, Catholic schools got it that they needed to treat people as individuals and adjust to their learning styles.”

Photo by John Raiola
Main image: Students at Iona Prep’s Upper School work on a class assignment.

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