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Bringing the young to Christ

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Sr Cecilia Joseph with young students at St Peter Chanel Primary in Regents Park. Photo: St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park
Sr Cecilia Joseph OP with young students at St Peter Chanel Primary in Regents Park. Photo: St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park

By Sr Cecilia Joseph OP 

Sr Cecilia Joseph OP from the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia has made history this year as the first religious Principal of St Peter Chanel Primary School in Regents Park in 30 years.

The Ohio-born Sister arrived in Sydney in 2008 to work on World Youth Day and has been a teacher at Trinity Catholic College in Auburn.

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Who do you look to for inspiration in your mission as a Catholic school principal?

I look to so many saints for inspiration in this task of evangelisation through leadership in a Catholic school.

To name a few: St. John Paul II is definitely at the top of the list with his love for youth and a passion for the new evangelisation.

As a religious and an educator, St. Mary of the Cross is also very close to me, especially in this school founded by her sisters (and in whose convent we now live).

In more recent days, I find myself asking Cardinal Pell to pray for certain intentions throughout the day as he had a deep love for and belief in authentic Catholic education.

Finally, Our Lady has been very close as I have started in this role in the primary school. Coming from the high school setting, I have been overwhelmed by the purity of heart of these young children.

It is no wonder that Jesus challenges us to become like little children!  I have felt Our Lady’s loving smile as these children have come to me with their stories, questions, and musings about life and faith.

Sr Cecilia Joseph with students at Regents Park. Photo: St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park
Sr Cecilia Joseph OP with students at Regents Park. Photo: St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park

As a proud Dominican, how do you draw upon this unique charism as a leader of a school?

One of the mottos of the Dominican Order is Veritas, Truth. St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in the 13th century to counteract the confusion that existed in the Church and in the world. Today we see many similarities between his time and ours.

The world needs Truth, grounded in charity, more than ever. The Dominican Order is known for its commitment to education, especially fostering the sense of wonder, the search for wisdom, and the appreciation that our lives and our world are gifts from God.

These attitudes prepare each of us — you and me – to be fully the person God created us to be, playing our unique role in building up God’s kingdom now and in eternity.

Another motto of the Dominican Order is ‘to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of our contemplation.’

As a religious, prayer is the foundation of all that I am and all that I do. From this relationship flows my ability to navigate the (sometimes hectic) activity of the day, whether that be in the classroom, in the office, in meetings or phone calls, or in the unexpected surprises of the moment.

St. Dominic was known to have ‘zeal for the salvation of souls.’ His followers today have inherited that quality. This burning desire to bring others to Christ through untiring evangelisation efforts will fail if it is not founded on deep prayer and a living relationship with Jesus.

St Peter Chanel captains with Sr Cecilia Joseph. Photo: acknowledge St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park
St Peter Chanel captains with Sr Cecilia Joseph OP. Photo: St Peter Chanel Primary, Regents Park

You’ve worked in such varied contexts… What do you believe makes Catholic education in Australia stand out from the other contexts you’ve worked in?

I have served in various roles in Catholic education in the USA for about twenty years. At first glance, two differences between the systems come to mind. First, the government funding of Catholic schools in Australia is a distinguishing feature.

While this point has many layers (and can be controversial), I have come from a system of schools whose funding is primarily dependent on tuition from families, and then subsidised by the local parish or diocese.

The resources at your disposal for teaching and learning were extremely limited and cuts had to be made at every turn just to remain open. Coming into this system, it is immediately evident why the Church fought so hard for access to government funding in our schools.

To be faithful to our mission, we must navigate the system in a smart and creative way. At the same time, we are extremely blessed to have adequate financial resources so that our schools, students, and families can flourish on a natural level.

We must never take this gift for granted. As good stewards, we must use these resources wisely, in a way that is ‘poor in spirit’, so that we may flourish on a spiritual level, which is the most important aspect of our school.

“Yet, children and families are still searching for meaning and for peace … Children naturally know that God exists and that he loves them.”

Another difference I am experiencing in the western suburbs is the vast opportunity for evangelisation.  Recent census data regarding religious affiliation indicates a significant increase in the ‘none’ category.

Our school demographics reflect that same trend. While the USA has a predominately Christian culture with many immigrants coming from countries with a Catholic heritage, the same cannot be said of Australia. I remember four years ago teaching a Year 7 student who, coming from a local state school, was beginning her Catholic high school education.

On the first day of class she looked at an image of the Annunciation and asked me “who is that woman?” After some questioning, I learned she had never heard any part of salvation history nor the name of Jesus. This scenario is becoming more common. Further, I encounter adults who have been poorly catechised and have drifted from the faith of their parents and grandparents.

Yet, children and families are still searching for meaning and for peace. The culture ultimately does not satisfy the deepest longing of the heart. Children naturally know that God exists and that he loves them.

They are in touch with God and our schools foster this relationship. Just last week I had a rather lengthy conversation with an unbaptised Year 2 student who concluded our discussion about religion with the firm conviction, “I love Jesus and Mary with all my heart” and that he wants to be baptised. I asked how he knew so much. He said he learned it at our school. Upon contacting home to discuss baptism, his mum is happy to support him in this search.

Soon I will be working with our Family Educator to run the Alpha program for our school staff as well as for our families. Working together with our parishes, we have a tremendous opportunity for evangelisation through our schools. With a bit of creativity and hard work, we can put the many resources we have to good use to win souls for the kingdom.

Sr Cecilia Joseph OP is the Principal of St Peter Chanel Primary school in Regents Park. She was born in the US state of Ohio and came to Australia in 2008 when Sydney hosted World Youth Day.

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