Sophia Montessori Academy thrives in first year

Moira Cullings

Pauline Meert and Irene O’Brien were both working on their Master’s degrees on separate continents with little financial security when they decided it was the perfect time to open a school.

Although they laugh at the circumstances now, the women’s trust in God at the time helped them follow that call despite of the chaos of life.

“We decided there was no clear path,” said O’Brien. “But we also felt a lot of peace with that. If we just said ‘Yes,’ the doors kept opening. Things would just unfold the way they were supposed to.”

The women had dreamed for years of starting their own Montessori school, and the journey toward it was filled with uncertainties, but the bumps along the way always seemed to work themselves out.

“To us it just felt like God’s voice saying, ‘Don’t give up now. Keep trying,’” said O’Brien. “And so we did.”

Their dream became a reality in February when Sophia Montessori Academy opened its doors in Denver. The school now has 28 students ages three to six. Meert and O’Brien are the main teachers and have help from assistant teachers Emma Hecker and Teresa Warhola.

The school’s classroom is bustling with hands-on activities that embody the Montessori approach of learning crafted by Maria Montessori.

“What Doctor Montessori did is bring the curriculum to life and make it accessible to the growth and development of the child,” said O’Brien.

The school incorporates the Byzantine Catholic faith, which goes hand-in-hand with the Montessori education, said Meert.

“One of the things that’s not often known is that Montessori herself was Catholic,” she said. “Her work was very Catholic in its understanding of the human person, through learning how God made us to be, and what works best at what ages.”

The classroom at Sophia Montessori caters to its students through its small furniture, tangible materials, one-on-one lessons, and freedom to explore within the boundaries of the classroom.

“At this age, children need to be involved,” said Meert. “They want to know about their world.”

Denver, CO, May 10 2018: Sophia Montessori Academy was started by Pauline Meert and Irene O’Brien. The school opened its doors in February. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

Offering the children less structure and more freedom within the classroom is one way to incorporate Catholic teaching, said Meert.

“The children know what the boundaries are, and they have freedom within that,” said Meert. “It’s a true understanding of the freedom God gives us.”

O’Brien explained that students at Sophia Montessori can accomplish learning tasks such as counting to 1,000 because they learn in a way that makes sense to them.

“If they have this foundation of numbers and number patterns, when they’re in first grade it’s going to be a lot easier for me to introduce algebra as a system that’s fun, enjoyable and accessible,” said O’Brien.

“That’s what Montessori is — understanding the child’s needs and then the education is tailored to the child’s learning abilities,” she said.

Through that tailoring, the women have discovered that the children find more joy in learning.

“They have a certain self-confidence and desire to learn more because they have this foundation,” said O’Brien.

Meert and O’Brien hope their students take that joy with them throughout their education.

“We want to be able to see education always be joyful and productive and to really have that love of learning continue on,” said Meert.

To celebrate the families who helped open Sophia Montessori and to raise funds for the school’s future, the teachers are hosting a gala on June 2 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the Curtis Ballroom at Landmark in Greenwood Village.

“[We want to] celebrate the families who did so much to really get this started,” said O’Brien. “Our other goal for the fundraiser is to start building up the funds so that we can offer tuition assistance and so we can finish paying off the costs of renovation.”

Anyone interested in the mission and vision of Sophia Montessori is invited to attend.

The women have high hopes for Sophia Montessori’s future and look forward to where the journey will lead them.

“The dream is huge,” said Meert. “This is just one step. We’re just rejoicing in that.”

Sophia Montessori Gala

June 2 from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Curtis Ballroom at Landmark

5345 Landmark Pl. Greenwood Village, 80111

To register for the gala, visit sophiamontessori.com/gala18.

COMING UP: Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

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Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

Lent and the art of fasting

Aaron Lambert

One interesting thing about liturgical seasons in the Church is that despite the fact they happen at roughly the same time every year, they still manage to sneak up on us.

Lent begins in just a few days, on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 26 this year. Never mind that most of us are probably just now fully recovered from the craziness of the Christmas season; it’s now time to enter what is arguably the most important season in the liturgical year. Oh, and we’re supposed to be extremely prayerful, reverent and intentional in how we approach Lent. Given all the other things happening in each of our lives, no big deal, right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone in feeling just a bit overwhelmed at the thought. But let’s take it a step even further and add some icing to that cake in the form of fasting (no pun intended). Fasting is an ancient practice that pre-dates even Christianity and is common to nearly all religions of the world. In fact, the act of fasting is mentioned more times in the Bible than baptism. In recent times, much has been said about the physical benefits of fasting — weight loss, stronger immune system, more effective cell regeneration — but it’s important for us to remember that fasting is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, one that’s meant to spool the thread which connects us to our loving Creator.

Admittedly, the rules for fasting during Lent have loosened up over the centuries; it’s not a stretch to say that in the time of the apostles, fasting was a hardcore thing for disciples of Jesus Christ to do. You see, back then, fasting during Lent meant fasting for all 40 of those days leading up to the feast of Easter. While many of us may tremble at the thought of not eating anything of true sustenance for over five weeks, there is something to be said in the spirit of denying ourselves our usual pleasures during the Lenten season as a way to draw nearer to he who can provide true nourishment and satisfaction.

The act of fasting can help foster in us three characteristics that ultimately make Lent not only a penitential season, but also one of renewal.

Asceticism
The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which means practice, bodily exercise and most especially athletic training. Essentially, it is the act of rigorous self-discipline and avoidance of overindulgence, with the aim of instilling in oneself a sense of self-control and virtue. In its most basic form, fasting is a type of asceticism; willingly denying ourselves the everyday comforts of life in an effort to unite our spirits more closely with that of Christ.

Of course, the practice of asceticism is counter-cultural in almost every way. We live in a world where our needs and desires are met on-demand, and to voluntarily abstain from one of these seems a preposterous proposition to the outsider. But it’s interesting, to bring back the Greek root of this word, to think of how the world’s best athletes implement this practice. Think of the intense training, strict dietary restrictions and long hours of work they put in the be the absolute best at what they do. Yes, it’s likely unbearably difficult at times, but they know deep down that their discomfort has a purpose.

Society tells us that suffering and discomfort are bad things to be avoided at all costs. But we as Christians look to the example of our Lord, who was willingly led to his death on Calvary, undertook unspeakable suffering and was made to feel like less than a man. Through his suffering mankind was redeemed, and because of his victory, we, too, can find redemption and renewal in our own trials. By practicing asceticism during Lent and giving up those things we find comfort in — sugar, Netflix, technology, or any other vice — we are not only reminded of the sacrifice Christ made for us, but we are strengthening the muscles of willpower and virtue that lead us closer to the Lord, and ultimately, true joy and peace.

Humility
“Humility is to the various virtues what the chain is in a rosary. Take away the chain and the beads are scattered; remove humility and all virtues vanish.”

St. John Vianney is quoted as saying this, and it’s a simple yet effective illustration of how all virtue flows from humility. To use a metaphor, if asceticism is what it is to, say, learn a new instrument, then humility is the marked improvement and mastery of that instrument over time.

By observing the Lenten fast, we are humbled rather quickly. Nothing makes us reflect on our own mortality and brokenness quite like the low grumble of a hungry stomach. And yet, by offering up this minute suffering during Lent and allowing the Lord to take it, it becomes apparent just how much we rely on him to not only provide the various provisions of our life, but also to provide meaning in our various sufferings. Mankind, for all its wonders and brilliance, cannot be sustained without the provisions of God.

From a more practical angle, there’s also no harm in fasting from food and technology to remind us of the many different walks of life people come from. It’s easy to take all the conveniences of our cozy lives for granted but Lent especially presents a great opportunity to remember those “least of us” who live in third-world countries, or even just down the street. Instead of buying two Big Macs for yourself for lunch, why not give one to the woman holding a sign at that intersection?

By maintaining a disposition of humility, we tap into the very core of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Freedom
So, through fasting, you have committed to a practice of asceticism for Lent, are reaping the benefits of staying humble, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. Now what?

Ultimately, there is a profound freedom that comes from fasting. Father Richard Simon of Relevant Radio said in a May 2019 episode of his show Father Simon Says, “Fasting is an exercise in freedom. The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord. Freedom is the absolute requirement for the Christian life. Most people think that freedom is getting what they want, but they don’t understand that they don’t want what they want, it is their passions controlling them.

“It is their desires, their hungers, their preferences that want what they want when they want it,” he continued. “The self is not free. The self is subject to this sort of barrage off weakened human nature, but fasting is about freedom.”

True freedom, as defined by God, isn’t the ability to say “yes” to your own desires whenever you want — it is the discipline to say yes to the Lord’s desires for you. Therefore, as we go through the Lenten season and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, we fast in remembrance of the perfect image of true freedom: Christ crucified on the Cross.

One of the lessons of the Lenten season is that we, too, are capable of achieving this freedom. By strengthening our will through the practice of fasting, we can grow in humility, from which all other virtue flows. In our humility, we find freedom to do the Lord’s will for our lives. And in that freedom, waiting with open arms, is the sweet renewal that our souls yearn for — renewal in the self-denying, humble and freely-given love of Christ.