In new Denver school, Byzantine spirituality meets Montessori method

.- With the goal of encountering children on a more personal level to meet their academic and spiritual needs, a Montessori school influenced by the Byzantine Catholic tradition is opening in Denver, Colorado.

Pauline Meert, who co-founded Sophia Montessori Academy along with Irene O’Brien, said the two “wanted to combine Montessori and Catholicism because it just made so much sense.”

Meert said the school aims to help children fulfill their God-given potential, and that “the Montessori message really makes that possible for each child, not just for a classroom as a whole, but for each individual.”

Students in Montessori schools work in periods of uninterrupted time – ideally three hours – having the freedom to choose from an established range of options. The Montessori Method uses hands-on techniques in presenting concepts to individual children, rather than a group oriented, lecture-based approach to learning. The student’s involvement in his or her own work then gives the teacher the freedom to spend time with each child and cater to each of their needs.

Sophia Montessori of Denver is in its final stages of its development, pending licensing and a few business inspections. But classes for children aged between three and six are expected to start in the fall of this year, and both Meert and O’Brien hope the school, currently with 11 families enrolled, will grow in number and into the high school level.

When asked about the origin of the school’s idea, Meert discussed her connection to children and her dream helping bring about a child’s full potential. She began her Montessori training in high school, and later envisioned Catholic teaching and the Montessori Method together.

Meert said the school has been four years in the making, but that she added the Byzantine spirituality aspect within the past year after she became a parishioner at Holy Protection Parish in Denver.

“The Byzantine faith is going to be the foundation,” she said, noting that the day will begin with a form of the Jesus prayer.

Montessori schools often begin the day with the “silence game,” in which children learn how to be calm and quiet in a time period of about 30 seconds to two minutes. Many schools have interpreted this freely, but she expressed a desire to tie this into the Byzantine’s Jesus Prayer.

“The beauty about being Byzantine is that we do that through the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on us, your children,’ she said, “You know because it’s kind of hard to call them sinners right away.”

The school will also have the kissing of icons and will teach according to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a very hands-on way of teaching the children about who Jesus is in time and space: through the parables, through infancy narratives, and through learning the nomenclature of the church.”

Children want to be a part of the world of adults and understand the liturgy, she said, and so the teachers aim to give them direct experiences related to the tabernacle and liturgical seasons.

“If we just tell them to be quiet and read a book during mass and during liturgy then we are not meeting their needs. They just want to know, they just want to be a part, they want to be welcomed by the church.”

She said many people would be surprised at the theological discussions she’s had with four-year-olds as well as the harmony created in the classroom. The environment is “surprisingly peaceful and calm, even though there are 20 three-to-six year-olds together.”

Meert also described the trust needed to allow children the freedom to make choices within prescribed limitations. “Three year-olds can do so much!” she said.

Meert defined this freedom as “not the freedom to do whatever you want, but…the freedom that Saint Thomas Aquinas talks about – having freedom within responsibility, within boundaries and within awareness of other people.”

In her interview with CNA, she also voiced her hope to establish afternoon classes for homeschooled kids and support for parents.

“We want to give parents tools and support. Some of the Montessori approach is common sense, but sometimes it’s a little trickier and parents just need extra support (or) someone to bounce ideas off of,” she said.

“We really want to be that support with those tools, and create a community that is often missing in our life.”

Featured image by Natalia Zhuravleva – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

COMING UP: Bishop Conley: Silence is the deeper vocation of a teacher

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Bishop Conley: Silence is the deeper vocation of a teacher

Regional classical education conference inspires administrators and teachers

With the opening of Frassati Catholic Academy this fall, the continued success of Our Lady of Lourdes School, as well as the newly-added classical track at Bishop Machbeuf High School, interest in classical education is steadily growing in Denver — and the teachers and administrators who run them are pursuing learning just as much as their students in order to serve them better.

During the week of July 5-7, teachers and administrators attended the first Institute for Catholic Liberal Education western regional conference, hosted at Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver.

Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., explained in the keynote that the Institute exists because “we believe education exists to form the whole human person, not just to prepare someone for a career, but to live freely and beautifully, as God intended them to be.”

He recalled how the 1967 document written by university presidents, “The Idea of the Catholic University,” more commonly called the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” essentially made themselves “more identifiably American and less identifiably Catholic” in teaching and tradition. This, according to Bishop Conley, crumbled faithful education in the country, influencing even elementary and high schools.

But he is hopeful.

“If dissenting universities, actively distancing themselves from Catholic identity, can have an impact that profound on Catholic and civic culture, then faithful schools, alive to the best traditions and wisdom of the Church, and dedicated to forming disciples, can be an unparalleled instrument for the revitalization of Catholic culture,” Bishop Conley said.

“The work that you are doing, creating authentically Catholic schools, without question, will significantly impact the culture in the United States in the next 50 years,” he added.

But to change culture, which occurs when students’ lives are transformed, teachers must first embrace their unique vocation and know the Lord intimately.

“Teachers and administrators must first themselves be disciples of Jesus Christ. It means that prayer, silent communion with the Eucharistic Lord, is at the center of the vocation as a teacher. To effectively foster encounters with the living God, each one of you must cultivate a deep and abiding interior relationship, especially in the silence of prayer,” Bishop Conley said.

The work that you are doing, creating authentically Catholic schools, without question, will significantly impact the culture in the United States in the next 50 years.”

“All missionary activity, which seeks to foster encounters with the Lord, must begin in silence, in lives of intimate prayer before the Lord. This is especially true in education, where fostering an attitude of receptivity and humility and wonder is at the heart of your mission. If we want to cultivate an authentically Catholic and liberal school, which liberates us to know the Lord, we need to cultivate a spirituality of silence, which is at the heart of discipleship, listening to the master,” he continued.

When the teacher cultivates a receptivity to silence and wonder, which is the place of deepest and most authentic learning, it makes a teacher “fit to foster authentic transformation of students,” according to Bishop Conley.

This receptivity of silence and wonder is what allows us to really learn, to see reality as it truly is.

“True schools are communities of learners and faculties of friends, receiving and apprehending reality together. True communities of learners are humble disciples of the truth,” Bishop Conley said. “Pope St. John Paul II wrote, ‘Faced with the sacredness of life and the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.’”

Rosemary Anderson, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes school, continued the discussion on the vocation of the teacher in her address.

“Teaching is a vocation, not just a career. Many modern education programs are killing the spirit of the vocation…it’s an art form, not an equation,” Anderson said. “It’s a call of the heart to help form souls. Jesus asked to be called teacher, and we model ourselves after him.”

In an interview with Denver Catholic, Anderson said that this regional conference came at the perfect time.

“It’s divine providence that we’re hosting the conference, with the opening of Frassati Catholic Academy and Bishop Machebeuf adding a classical track, so there’s a lot of growing interest, and the goal is to help teachers grow deeper in knowledge of classical education,” Anderson said. “One of the primary goals is also to foster a sense of community within these schools to help their mission.”

Several teachers from Frassati Catholic Academy attended the conference and plan to take that inspiration to the classroom.

“I am really excited to help build the classical culture, as well as learn with the staff,” said Anthony Saulino, Frassati’s athletic director and P.E. teacher. “[The conference] impacted my teaching philosophy tremendously. It made me think how I can emphasize Jesus and our faith into my classroom more.”