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An older student helps a younger peer in Sacred Heart Academy’s Reading Buddies program, above, while below, two young students face off in a game of Chess inside the classroom. Photo courtesy Sacred Heart Academy

The future of Catholic education?

  • April 7, 2024

When Sacred Heart Academy opened its doors for the first time last September, it joined a growing number of schools feeding a demand for a classical Catholic education.

The Oshawa, Ont., school may be the newest independent Catholic school in Ontario, but a substantial increase in interest is emerging for private Catholic education across the province. 

For Sacred Heart Academy, it originated as a grassroots homeschool co-op in 2017 that looked to serve the needs of families in Durham Region looking for alternative Catholic education options.

“There were a few of us coming out of all-night adoration at St. Isaac’s here in Pickering back in 2018 when we discussed the fact that there’s no Catholic private school between East York and Our Lady of the Wayside up in Peterborough,” said Nicholas Ferreira, headmaster at Sacred Heart Academy. “There was this whole swath of Durham Region that wasn’t covered at all so we said, let’s see if we can create a Catholic classical academy. We had a meeting two weeks later with about 11 families in my living room where everyone said let’s run with this.” 

So began a five-year journey for Ferreira and others to provide an alternative to public Catholic education, one local to Durham Region. It is rooted in the Catholic faith and is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church with a mission to prepare students “to be active, qualified ambassadors of God’s Word” in daily life.

Finding a home was a first stumbling block. The co-op had operated out of the hall at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Oshawa, and Fr. Marijan Sisko expressed an interest in operating a private school there. 

After some discussion, it was decided St. Gregory the Great’s hall would not be able to accommodate what the two were looking for. To make matters worse, other locations were demanding rent rates close to triple the cost of what was initially budgeted.

Ferreira recalls his experience praying a novena to St. Joseph during this tricky time period.

“I said, we’re opening the school on Sept. 11 even if it means opening it in the stable, like what happened in Bethlehem. This is going to happen and it’s going to happen at the right price,” he said. 

“The morning after praying the novena of sleeping St. Joseph, I went back to the church where we had been the night before where the priest asked me to pay an amount in rent that was the exact amount I put before sleeping St. Joseph the night before.”  

Sacred Heart Academy is now coming close to the end of its inaugural year with students learning the truths of the Catholic faith through every subject. As with many Catholic classical schools, the curriculum is a mix of rigourous standard programs such as math and science, but also features elements such as Latin, virtual development programs, musical training and daily Mass. 

Sacred Heart is already reporting an increase in demand. Starting with 16 students, the school has already seen a 33-per-cent increase in enrolment over the course of this year. 

Our Lady of the Wayside for 24 years has been a classical Catholic private school in Peterborough, Ont., with an elementary and secondary option. It reports a similar rise in interest, which headmaster John Jalsevac fully expects to continue. 

“The school has really stabilized and taken off in a big way. Enrolment this year jumped from 62 students to 85 and we’re seeing a lot of continued interest. There are open houses with a lot of people coming and so there’s a real sense that there is likely to be continued rapid future growth. While I can’t put a definite number on our growth this year, since applications are just starting to come in, I would not be surprised if we surpass 100 students, with additional students on waiting lists. This would amount to a 60-per-cent+ growth in a year and a half.”

As for why the increase in interest is so substantial, Ferriera noted it may have always been present but is now more noticeable because people are committing to create such institutes. And for families who send their children for this classical education, it’s an answer to their prayers.

“The number one answer I get from parents and from people in the community who hear about the school is that this is an answer to prayer, and it’s something they’ve been praying about for years,” he said. “I think people are realizing that our faith has so much to teach in terms of forming young people with virtue and character so that they can be saints. It’s not just prepping them for a job, it’s making that continuum between faith lived at school, faith lived at home and faith lived at church.”

“There are many reasons for this hunger for joyfully Catholic, classical education,” Jalsevec said. “It is true that many families are waking up to the reality that the broader secular culture is growing increasingly hostile to basic Christian values, including the idea that parents and not educational bureaucrats are the first educators.

“We know that students hunger for meaning and beauty in their lives. Our belief is that joyfully Catholic, classical education is best positioned to respond to many of the crises of our time.”

It’s a similar trend in the United States. According to the Thriving Schools Study’s First Look Report from the Society of Classic Learning, Christian classical schools grew in the U.S. from 140 in 2010 to over 700 as of June 2023.

Back in Ontario, growth opportunities are being observed by the Consortium of Independent Ontario Catholic Schools (CIOCS), an umbrella network for classical Catholic education institutions in the province. 

The CIOCS, which has been operating for close to a year now, oversees five private Catholic schools with four more pending registration and two prospective schools looking to join. The network is a hub connecting these schools. 

“This influx of families looking for an alternative to the public system is because a lot of things do not align with the values that they have in our government schools anymore, regardless if it’s the changes of curriculum that have been put forward in the government or not,” said Michael Aguiar, chair of the consortium and head of school for Mater Boni Consilii Academy in Oakville. 

Mater Boni Consilii Academy opened its doors on the same day as Sacred Heart Academy. The two headmasters had been in talks early in each school’s development about starting up a governing body. 

“The consortium started with me just giving Nicholas simple resources that we had already made. Things like business plan templates, parent and faculty handbooks, all these different types of resources to help aid in their process of opening,” Aguiar said. 

As for what’s being done to accommodate growing enrolment, schools like Sacred Heart Academy are looking to open a Grade 9 program. Our Lady of the Wayside is in need of renovations to house its growing classes. 

The CIOCS is seeking ways to lower costs to ensure Catholic families can afford to enrol their children. While fees are not exorbitant compared to some private schools, it’s not a cheap education. At Sacred Heart, it will cost almost $7,000 to enrol one child, with the price decreasing ($9,650 for two children, $11,950 for three and $12,950 for four) the more children enrolled. At Wayside, it begins at $9,100 for first child and a similar sliding scale.

“One of the things that we hope to do through CIOCS is to be able to receive funding for scholarships so that families who cannot afford private Catholic education can one day apply for a scholarship to be able to send their child to one of our schools,” Aguiar said. “One thing that I’ve seen not just in our school here in Oakville, but in other schools across the province, is that families really want to be able to send their child there but they just simply can’t afford it.” 

Sacred Heart Academy, Our Lady of the Wayside and Mater Boni Consilii Academy vow to continue to teach the art of right living to their ever-increasing number of students.

“The identity within all our schools that is shared is that because these children have an identity as a child of God and that is the first thing that we’re called to nurture… it’s not just something we’re doing for whatever sake, but it’s coming from a call from Christ Himself to say this is or could be the future of Catholic education for our province and for our country,”

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