“Our schools exist to evangelize”

The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia emphasize love of Christ and truth, personal holiness, and academic excellence

Sr. Anne Catherine, OP, is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (www.nashvilledominican.org) and is principal of St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville (www.stcecilia.edu). The academy is a girl’s Catholic high school that is over a 150 years old, having been founded in 1860. 

The Nashville Dominicans are a traditional Catholic community who wear the full habit, and with 300 sisters, are well known in the Catholic world. In Tennessee, however, they are very much the minority.  Sister Catherine reports that the state is a mere 3% Catholic, the lowest percentage of any state in the union.

Sister Catherine is one of seven sisters at the academy, five of whom are teachers.  She recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: How did you come to join the Dominican Sisters?

Sister Catherine: I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. I attended Catholic schools, but I didn’t learn much about the Catholic faith.  I was taught by a sister in both the 1st and 4th grade, but otherwise did not have too much exposure to sisters.

I went to college at the University of Dallas (www.udallas.edu), and first met the Dominican Sisters while I was a senior there.  One of my roommates at the university had entered the community.  It was a surprise to me at the time, because I didn’t think women still became nuns.

I thought I was called to marriage, but the Lord had other plans for me.  I visited the community, and found I was drawn to the beauty of their life.  The sisters loved the Faith, and practiced it with joy.  They loved Our Lord, they loved the Blessed Mother, and they loved the Holy Father.  They led a balanced life and were dedicated to study.  Their community life was strong.

I had begun teaching elementary school, and the Nashville Dominicans were teachers.  I thought it was a good fit for me.

CWR: Who is joining the Nashville Dominicans today?

Sister Catherine: We attract all kinds of women.  Our community is really very diverse.  When we have a vocations retreat, young women come from throughout the country and from other countries.  Some are teachers, but most are from other fields.  But we’re not a one-mold-fits-all kind of community. 

However, there is one thing we all have in common: a wholehearted desire to give ourselves to the Lord, and an acceptance of his call to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

CWR: Many Catholic schools in the United States have closed in the past 50 years, and far fewer American children are attending Catholic schools today.  Why do you believe there has been a decline in Catholic schools?

Sister Catherine: It would seem the days of a parish school on every corner are gone. There are many reasons I could point to, but the one I would start with is that schools are not easy to operate.  It is a demanding apostolate.  There are lots of headaches.  It is difficult to get the funding needed, as well as finding committed teachers. 

It is also a physically demanding apostolate, which can be difficult to continue in as one gets older. 

CWR: What is the basic history and background of St. Cecilia Academy?

Sister Catherine: The academy began in 1860, when the bishop of Nashville asked some sisters from Ohio to move into his diocese and found a boarding school.  Our community’s current motherhouse—which you see on our website—is the old boarding school.

Today, we’re located in an affluent suburb of Nashville, not far from downtown.  The school is owned and operated by the Nashville Dominicans.  We serve 260 girls, grades 9-12, 75% of whom are Catholic.  About 80% of our students are white—although there is a diversity that does not meet the eye—and 20% from a variety of other races.  Students wear a uniform; tuition is $16,000 per year.

Our school has an appeal to the community because of its academic excellence, nurturing environment, and the appeal of being taught by religious sisters.

CWR: What do you find to be the greatest challenge in teaching in Catholic schools?

Sister Catherine: It varies from school to school and student to student, but we’ve found that some of our parents are ignorant of the Catholic faith.  They are part of a whole generation of Catholics who did not receive a proper formation in the Faith.  Not only must we educate our students, but gently reach out and instruct some of our parents as well. 

Our sisters are well equipped to teach the faith; in fact, all religion classes are taught by our sisters.

CWR: What successes have you seen in your apostolate?

Sister Catherine: On the “worldly” side, we do very well academically.  Here at St. Cecilia Academy, 100% of our girls who graduate are college-bound, some going to top-tier universities.  They can compete academically with anyone.

More importantly, we’ve made much progress in equipping them to go out and transform the culture for Christ.  In whatever field they choose, this is most important.  The Lord needs workers in all areas of his vineyard, and our girls bring the message of the Gospel to whatever they’re doing.  I’ve seen the faith really impact their lives.

Sometimes our students return and thank us for our work.  We’ve had retired sisters in their 90s who’ve had students come back and say, “You’ve changed my life.”

Sometimes we see conversions.  It could be a non-Catholic becoming Catholic, or a Catholic not practicing his faith who discovers that his faith has become more living and real to him.

Other times, we don’t know exactly what happens with our students.  But part of teaching and what the Lord asks us to do is plant a seed which we don’t have the opportunity to see full grown.

CWR: Do any of your students become Dominican Sisters?

Sister Catherine: Yes.  I won’t say it happens a lot, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing to see.

CWR: Where are your sisters teaching?

Sister Catherine: Many bishops have welcomed us into their dioceses.  In fact, we’re blessed to have more requests that we come to a diocese than we have the numbers to fulfill.

We teach in about 40 schools in about 35 or 40 different states.  We also teach in Australia, Scotland and Canada.  We teach at the elementary and high school level, as well as at our Aquinas College (www.aquinascollege.edu) in Nashville.  We work in partnership with lay faculty, and have from three to eight sisters per school. 

We find that with the sisters, committed lay people and, hopefully, a priest to serve as chaplain, the fullness of the life of the Church will be reflected in that school.

CWR: Do the sisters have a philosophy of education which they follow?

Sister Catherine: The Dominicans were founded in the Middle Ages for the preaching and teaching of Sacred Truth.  Dominicans have always been involved in teaching in some way.  Some of our communities have diversified into other areas as well, but the Nashville Dominicans have always been devoted to teaching.

One of our Dominican mottos is veritas, truth.  As Dominicans, we contemplate the truths taught to us by Christ, and pass the fruits of our contemplation on to our students.  Our teaching, in fact, is an overflow of our prayer and community life as sisters. 

Study plays a vital role in our charism.  We’re committed to academic excellence.  We study to attain knowledge, then use that knowledge to attain wisdom.  Our sisters go through all the training a lay person would undergo to teach in a public school, plus we do studies in philosophy and theology.  In fact, most of our sisters go on to get advanced degrees in theology.

In the end, we all know that our schools exist to evangelize.  We want our students to see that their call is to holiness, and that they respond affirmatively to that call.

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About Jim Graves 223 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.