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Her call to education led to GrACE

  • March 19, 2022

“I have been called to Catholic education and this vocational call has blessed and enriched my life in profound ways.”

Bonnie Annicchiarico crafted this opening sentence for a testimonial published on the Diocese of Calgary website in June 2020 entitled, “The power of witness.”

The former teacher, principal and associate superintendent on behalf of Christ the Redeemer (CTR) Catholic Schools wrote about her inspirational colleagues “who are authentic witnesses to the Gospel” and for tirelessly “going above and beyond for their students.”

Scott Morrison, superintendent of CTR Catholic Schools, does not hesitate to return that praise. He considers Annichiarico his “absolute role model when it comes to leadership.” He first witnessed his colleague champion Catholic education as the founding principal of both Holy Family Academy primary school and St. Joseph’s Collegiate in Brooks, Alta.

In 2013, they became more collaborators as he assumed his current role and Annichiarico was appointed associate superintendent. When Annicchiarico chose to retire from CTR at the end of the 2017-18 school year, it is safe to say Morrison was one of many in Alberta Catholic education delighted to see her answer God’s call to service yet again.

Since 2018, Annicchiarico, blessed with three children and 10 grandchildren with her husband Julien, has served as provincial director of GrACE, Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education. This group unites stakeholders committed to promoting and safeguarding publicly-funded Catholic education in Alberta.

Annicchiarico said the Alberta Catholic bishops, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association and the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta have historically done the work of advocating for these schools. Five years ago, the desire was expressed to activate Catholic school support at a grassroots level.

“The idea of GrACE was to give stakeholders right at the school and parish level an opportunity to be informed about Catholic education, its history, and to understand the present reality of how many students we have, what schools are doing and what do we look like,” said Annicchiarico. “And we are proactive to be effective in a secular culture. Probably the biggest threat to Catholic education is the secular culture we are a part of.”

GrACE is always mindful of the reality government-funded separate education is the exception, not the rule. Saskatchewan and Ontario are the only other provinces funding Catholic schools.

Enrolment figures have trended in the positive direction for Alberta Catholic schools in recent years, jumping from 164,128 in 2013-14 to over 183,000 today, according to GrACE statistics. Annicchiarico said strong academic standards, parental involvement and supports for students dealing with classroom, mental, domestic and social struggles are hallmarks of Catholic schools.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic looming for half of GrACE’s four-year lifespan, Annicchiarico said the group has achieved “phenomenal” success.

Each local GrACE group was empowered to assemble parents, educators, students, clergy and parishioners to engage the community. The provincial GrACE group and the local iterations utilize online tools to promote the positive happenings in Catholic schools, to offer collective prayer for Catholic education and to organize events. To foster provincial unity there is a monthly newsletter that profiles the history, current makeup and initiatives underway in schools.

Annicchiarico was delighted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Holy Family Academy, which she helped found in 1996, last autumn. St. Joseph’s Collegiate will hit that milestone in 2024.

Morrison said Annicchiarico is such an effective advocate of Catholic education because she exemplifies the mission statement of St. Joe’s: “a community, rooted in faith, seeking excellence for all.”

“I can quote those words because they are so true, and I have never forgotten them. She created a community of Catholic educators and supporters in Brooks that do everything together.”

Morrison adds that Annicchiarico particularly shines at parental engagement and welcoming new educators into the school family.

Annicchiarico was once one of those new educators. She did not grow up in a Catholic household, but she quickly was drawn to the faith after being hired to be the music teacher of St. Joseph’s School in Whitecourt, Alta., at age 21.

“As the music teacher, I was in charge of the music liturgy at celebrations. I quickly became immersed in culture and welcomed into the community. Within about a year-and-a-half, I became a member of the Catholic Church and grew very passionate about Catholic education. It was transformational for me.”

GrACE’s four-year mandate will end this spring and its future will be determined. No matter what happens, ensuring a long-term future for Alberta Catholic education funding will continue.

“What is going on in our schools is strong and encouraging academically and in terms of our faith. Are there ways to be stronger? Yes, absolutely. We need to continue to be authentically Catholic in all aspects of our education. If we are not completely different from public education, we don’t really have a right to exist.”

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