Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Way of Beauty at St Stephen's Catholic School, Grand Rapids

A Pre-K Through 8 School That Has Made The Way of Beauty a Central Principle of Its Liberal Arts Education. The Parish and the School Work Together for Cultural Change.

One of the heartening aspects of pre-university education in this country is the growth in the number of classical academies. This is a broadly applied term, but they are schools that typically describe themselves as offering either a “great books” or “liberal arts” curriculum. 

I recently visited and spoke at St Stephen’s Catholic School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is one such school. Under the leadership of its principal, Elizabeth Black, and pastor, Fr Scott Nolan, it offers a Catholic education in which the liberal arts curriculum has been integrated with The Way of Beauty. This is a very carefully thought out program in which artistic creativity is a core part of the curriculum, such that all that is taught in the classroom is enriched by the incarnation of the Good and the True in the creation of beautiful artifacts. The schedule includes:
  • surveying - students will create a beautiful map of the grounds and buildings
  • needlepoint
  • gardening - the students grow beautiful flowers that will be used at Mass and they are taught the symbolism of those flowers. So, for example, they grow lilies that symbolize purity.
  • drawing and painting
  • cooking - students learn to create dishes that are in accord with the feasts and fasts of the Church. They then take the recipes home and teach mum and dad how to cook them too!
As an Englishman, I was especially enthusiastic that gardening for beauty was included. I asked if the culture was such that growing flowers was seen as something that only the girls would do, and was delighted to be told that no, boys are as happy to do this as girls are. Black told me that their students don’t see needlepoint as an exclusively feminine activity either. Again, I think this is a good thing. All of this is liturgically oriented: everyone understands how all that they do contributes to the ultimate human activity of the worship of God in the liturgy. The result is properly oriented experiential learning in which the student understands not just the “what” of a good education, but the “why”, and so wants to learn enthusiastically. When the purpose of education is ordered to our ultimate purpose as human beings, then this will give purpose and meaning to the rest of their lives too. Mass is celebrated ad orientem in the beautifully and imaginatively restored adjacent parish church, which is at the heart of the school life. (There is an article on the restoration in the Liturgical Arts Journal.) Beauty will indeed save the world.

St Stephen’s, before and after renovation

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