Official helps schools understand their Catholic identity makes them unique

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Students from St. John's Catholic School in Goshen, N.Y., attend Mass celebrated by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan Sept. 24, 2021. (CNS photo/Bob Reers via Catholic New York)

NEW YORK (CNS) — Linda Mele Dougherty said she is old enough to remember when many Catholics identified where they lived by their parish affiliation.

In her family’s case, the parish was Our Lady of Mercy in Forest Hills in the New York borough of Queens.

“I’d like to see that again,” she said in an interview with Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, about her responsibilities as the associate superintendent for Catholic identity in the archdiocese.

The lessons she learned at home from watching her parents living their faith by helping their neighbors, friends and relatives made a big impression on her and her two siblings, who all actively practice their Catholic faith today.

“I saw their faith and beliefs in action,” she said. “That spoke to me and made me want to continue that in any way I could. I chose teaching.”

Since taking over her new post last August, Dougherty has met with newly named principals and those in a couple of school regions around the archdiocese.

One of the first things she often asks principals is how someone just walking in would know that their school is Catholic. Follow-up questions might include: “Who greets them?” and “What is the culture of your school?”

The queries are designed to start a discussion about “what makes their school Catholic,” she said.

During a long career in the classroom and as a school administrator, Dougherty served at both Catholic and public schools. She was principal of three Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, before she came to the archdiocese in 2016 as regional superintendent.

Along with education and administrative degrees, she holds a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College. In the Brooklyn Diocese, she also served as chair of the diocese’s Catholic identity committee.

Her interest in Catholic identity is sparked by “a desire to maintain the strength and uniqueness of our schools.”

She encourages administrators and teachers to look at their school’s charism, realizing the word is normally associated with religious communities. Essentially, she is asking them to answer this question: “What’s special or unique about your Catholic school?”

Discussion points also can look at the religious community or pastor who founded the school. Dougherty said she has been meeting regularly with the vicar for religious in the archdiocese to explore these avenues.

She said these questions coincide with society’s great interest in ancestry, and Dougherty believes that the schools’ own histories offer a compelling story of their own.

“Let’s hear about what makes this Catholic school distinctive,” she said.

Rediscovering a school’s charism and sense of its own history is more important since members of the religious communities who founded them likely may no longer be present today, she said. In many cases, the traditions and practices they instilled remain present in the life of the school.

A school’s Catholic identity is not a cookie-cutter approach. She said the key is “how do we discover the uniqueness of each school” and continue to do the good things inspired by the vowed religious women and men, even if they are no longer present.

“We still have great stories about our Catholic school student and what they accomplish and bring to the world,” Dougherty said.

Part of her job, as she sees it, is to build up the schools and give them suggestions for improvement.

She also understands that not all teachers are in exactly the same place in their depth of understanding and ability to teach religion. For some, the courses they take for their catechist certificate is their first religious training since they prepared for their own confirmation. Others may have a strong background in teaching religion.

She said one of the best tools any Catholic school teacher possesses is his or her own faith in Jesus. “If we start there, we can only move forward and go up.”

Approaching her responsibilities in developing Catholic identity across the archdiocese, Dougherty said she counts on the steady support of Superintendent Michael Deegan and the other associate superintendents and regional superintendents.

And they know they can count on her to help create and prepare prayer services and liturgies for meetings as well as presentations for special topics such as Advent and Lent.

Having many non-Catholic students in some Catholic schools is both a challenge and an opportunity that makes strengthening the school’s Catholic identity even more important, she said. While society offers a “secular spirituality,” Catholic schools are able “to offer the real person of Jesus,” she said.

“We have many dedicated teachers and staff members who work tirelessly to show the students and their families that this is our faith and this is how we live it,” Dougherty said.

Woods is editor-in-chief of Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York.

Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service has reported from the Vatican since the founding of its Rome bureau in 1950.