Denver’s first Catholic classical high school opens under patronage of Our Lady of Victory

Nearly half a millennium ago, thousands of Catholics heeded Pope Pius V’s call to pray the Rosary requesting Our Lady’s intercession for the deliverance of Europe from Turkish invasion.

In a miraculous triumph, at what came to be known as the “Battle of Lepanto,” the outnumbered Christian “Holy League” overcame the Turkish forces, winning Our Lady of the Rosary a new advocation: Our Lady of Victory.

Today, Denver’s new and first Catholic classical high school has chosen Our Lady of Victory as its patroness, with the mission of developing the whole person and forming students who are holy, well-educated and prepared to engage the present culture and contribute to society.

Our Lady of Victory High School is part of the Chesterton Schools Network, which encourages parent-led Catholic schools across the nation, inspired by the life and work of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote a poem about the victory at Lepanto.

Although the school is not an archdiocesan high school, it has been officially recognized by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila as a Catholic school. This fall’s inaugural 9th grade class will launch at the St. Louis Parish School building in Denver with nearly 20 students.

“Chesterton’s model of joyful Catholicism draws upon the classical tradition but is very evangelical: It engages the culture with a joyful approach to being Catholic… rather than a reactionary one,” said Dr. R. Jared Staudt, President of the school, Director of Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. “We want to form saints to go out and do great things for the Lord within our culture.”

The classical education approach highlights the trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

“We emphasize Socratic dialogue as well as the trivium: how to read texts carefully and understand them through grammar, how to think about them in a coherent manner through logic, and then how to express yourself well in writing and speech through rhetoric; but also the quadrivium: How do we understand the logical order and beauty of the universe?” Dr. Staudt explained.

The benefits of this type of education are many, he assured.

“It’s not just a practical output, but about forming strong dispositions of thinking, of being able to evaluate things, being able to form a plan of action for your life that will translate into being successful in the future.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things,” Dr. Staudt said.

Part of what makes this goal possible is the communion between faith and reason. Students begin the school day with daily Mass; read Homer, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, etc.; and study the Bible and the Catechism. They participate in a curriculum where history, philosophy, literature and theology are “braided together,” as their website states.

Part of what makes it unique is also its approach to the fine arts and to mathematics and science.

“We emphasize the fine arts because we want the students to be engaged with beauty and wonder… We want to humanize them, to make them more fully alive,” Dr. Staudt said.

“I would say we also approach math and science from that perspective. We take math and science very seriously, but not as something dry and textbook based, but something that is engaging the beauty, the logic, the wonder of the universe, and the fact that we can logically understand [it] because it is itself something that is a creative work of a mind, of God’s mind, and his beauty is impressed within it.”

As part of this approach, the school has implemented in its unique formation a lot of time in the outdoors, beginning the year with a three-day backpacking trip with the students and ending with a whitewater rafting trip.
The school also plans on having retreats throughout the year, attending and hosting fine arts events and providing service opportunities for its students.

“I think that’s truly part of what makes us unique, that we want to develop the whole person: body, mind and soul,” Dr. Staudt explained.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things.”

The seed for the foundations of the school began with the desire of a group of Denver Catholic parents for a holistic, classical formation for their children, also motived by the need for a Catholic high school in the South Denver metro area.

Hoping to open a Catholic classical high school for their children in the future, six dads organized a series of monthly talks titled “The First Educators” at St. Mary Parish in Littleton from September to November 2018 as a first step to help in this direction.

Little did they know that their dream would become reality only a few months later, with the help of Dr. Staudt, the Chesterton Schools Network and the support of other parents around the archdiocese.

With six experienced teachers on board, the mission-driven school is set to begin forming students in the classical tradition.

“We want them to be holy. I would say that is our biggest overarching goal, that we want to form saints in the sense that they are thinking people who are well-educated and well prepared to engage the world and make a contribution in society – but [in a way] that holiness integrates everything else that we do,” Dr. Staudt concluded.

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COMING UP: What is Classical education?

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We celebrate Catholic Schools Week beginning January 28th. That day also marks the feast of the patron of Catholic schools, St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “whoever teaches the truth enlightens the mind, for truth is the light of the mind” (De Veritate, 11). The student, however, does not receive this light passively, Aquinas says, but, with their teacher as guide, should actively seek to realize their potential to know.

As so many students have lost their love of learning, some schools have returned to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition for new inspiration. In particular, classical education has taken root across the country, with one entire diocese and over two hundred Catholic schools adopting it. The Archdiocese of Denver has two classical schools, Our Lady of Lourdes and Frassati Catholic Academy, as well as a classical track at Bishop Machebeuf High School.

But what is classical education? Some think it must be an advanced curriculum only for elite students. Rather, classical education takes us back to the basics: how to read, how to think, how to speak. These three skills are often referred to as “the three ways,” the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Classical education focuses on inspiring students to read more, think about what they read, and communicate effectively about it. It is called classical, as it looks back to Greco-Roman civilization and the Christian culture of the Middle Ages for inspiration, both in approach and in content matter, such as classical language.

This approach does not focus primarily on practical outcomes as the goal, but the formation of mind. Ironically the approach has proven that it does prepare students well for their future. No matter what students will do for their careers, classical education gives general preparation through deep thinking, problem solving, and creative expression, which help them to excel. It has been proven that as children become more immersed in technology, they fail to develop these skills. As the workforce becomes more automated and computer driven, classical training will be more in need and will not be replaced by machines like other practical skill sets.

There are a number of books that can help us to learn more about the classical approach and the Christian tradition on education. First, An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents by Christopher Perrin (Classical Academic Press, 2004) provides a short, basic introduction. It leads the reader through a short history of classical education, the key approaches of the trivium and quadrivium, the importance of classical languages, and the general stages of learning.

Second, Gene Veith Jr. and Andrew Kern provide a more in-depth introduction in Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping the Nation (Capital Research Center, 3rd ed., 2015). The authors offer an ecumenical perspective, but also note that “Catholic education has always contained a classical element, and today there are a variety of classical forms within the orbit of Catholic education, including home schools, home school cooperatives, parochial schools, and private schools” (59). As they note, the classical movement has started small and has been building steady momentum.

Third, for those interested in a more substantial treatment, Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B traces the power of classical education through the life of one impactful teacher, John Senior (John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, Thomas More College Press, 2016). Senior co-founded the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas with the goal of awakening wonder and helping students to open their eyes to reality. Fr. Bethel summarizes Senior’s education philosophy as “poetic” in that we “must ground all intellectual and effective life on the experiential and imaginative level. This concrete way of nourishing Realism underlay everything he taught and the way he taught it.” Senior’s approach provides a model for classical teaching in grounding education in a direct experience of what is taught.

The classical approach provides Catholics an opportunity to rethink education in a time of transition. As many public schools experience failure and Catholics schools continue to close, it may be time to look back into our own tradition in order to move forward in a fresh and creative way. The Catholic tradition offers the light of wisdom, described by Aquinas, that can enlighten the minds of our children.