Curriculum Imbues Aquinas’ Virtue-Teachings
St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings on the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit can be daunting enough for most adults, let alone school kids.
But the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, have developed a curriculum that effectively communicates the Angelic Doctor’s insights to students from kindergarten to high school about the virtues they will need to live and cope well as Christian disciples.
“We wanted to instill the importance of that, because what virtue really is, is this internal disposition toward goodness,” said Dominican Sister John Dominic, one of four foundresses of her community, which has its mother house in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“We aim to form adults, a generation of young people, who desire to be good, that see that this way of life leads to an interior peace and happiness,” Sister Dominic said.
Sisters spiritually adopted Legatus
Communicating the value of the virtuous life has been a staple of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, which began in 1997 with four members from the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, more commonly known as the Nashville Dominicans.
Sister Dominic and her three foundresses felt called to begin a new religious foundation. They were aided by Tom Monaghan, founder of Legatus, who arranged to bring the sisters to Ann Arbor so they could operate a new Catholic school that would teach students to excel in academics and the spiritual life.
“We were aligned with our vision for Catholic education,” said Sister Dominic, who added that Monaghan also helped build the community’s mother house. She said the sisters have spiritually adopted Legatus and regularly pray for the organization’s intentions.
“We’ve always felt very close to Legatus,” Sister Dominic said.
400 schools use the program
The sisters operate the Spiritus Sanctus Academies, which are two private Catholic Pre-K-to-8th grade schools, in the Ann Arbor and Plymouth areas of southeast Michigan. The community has its own publishing company, Lumen Ecclesia Press, that publishes books written and music recorded by the sisters.
“When we had to get our books printed, the printer told us we needed a press name,” Sister Dominic said. “So we came up with Lumen Ecclesia Press, for Light of the Church, with the symbol of a torch because we want to be a light out there to praise, to bless, and to preach.”
The Education in Virtue curriculum was the first project the sisters published through Lumen Ecclesia Press. Sister Dominic said an education in the virtues is closely linked to Dominican spirituality, teaching, and preaching. She added that the sooner children are taught about virtue, the easier it is for them to grow in the virtues.
“I found that when I was the principal of Spiritus Sanctus Academy, people would ask other teachers, ‘How do I teach virtue and temperance to a kindergartener?’” Sister Dominic said. “That’s why we develop resources, with virtue cards that contain illustrations of what a particular virtue looks like, a phrase of what it sounds like, and what it looks like in action.”
In addition to the virtue cards, which are similar to flash cards, the virtue curriculum’s resources include videos, professional development courses for teachers, and videos for parents who are interested in the materials.
“We’ve tried to make the content not too intellectual, but so that any person can understand it,” said Sister Dominic, who added that more than 400 Catholic schools across the country use the virtue curriculum.
“The materials are attractive, engaging, and infused with Sacred Scripture, insights from the lives of the saints, and a Thomistic understanding of the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Father Steve Mattson, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, wrote for a testimonial published on the Education in Virtue’s website.
‘Echoing the mystery’ for catechists
The sisters’ other big project has been the publication of Echoing the Mystery, a book for catechists based on the teaching approach of Barbara Morgan, the retired foundress of the catechetics program at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Before retiring in 2005, Morgan taught Sister Dominic and many notable Catholic apologists and authors, including Jeff Cavins, Tim Gray, and Edward Sri, among others.
“Her love and deep understanding of God’s revelation make her an effective catechist,” Sister Dominic said, adding that Morgan, who lives in Michigan, understands that a catechist is a person who “echoes down” the truths God has revealed.
Echoing the Mystery was released in 2018 after about 12 years’ hard work and planning. Sister Dominic said the community wanted to compile Morgan’s insights and catechetical approach for future generations of catechists.
Morgan, who was seriously ill at times and nearly died from pancreatitis, said she was unsure if the book would ever be published, but was thankful that God enabled her and Dominican Sister Athanasius Munroe, her co-author, to finish Echoing the Mystery. Morgan credited Mother Mary Assumpta Long, the superior of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, with allowing Sister Athanasius to work exclusively with her.
James Pauley, a theology and catechetics professor at Franciscan University, said Echoing the Mystery represents the “lifework of a master catechist” that meets a profound need in the Church.
“It is the most comprehensive and incisive treatment of how to communicate the content of the Christian message available today,” Pauley said. “The book does not advocate for a merely conceptual presentation of Christian doctrine, but it puts doctrine in proper relationship to the kerygma (Greek, for “preaching”), the Scriptures, the sacramental encounter with God, and the call to conversion.”
Firsthand research from Church documents, scripture, experience
Barbara said her knowledge of catechetics and teaching approach is rooted in the era before the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in 1992. She learned how to research Catholic doctrine in Church documents. She also attended 12 years of Catholic schools, went to a Catholic college, and had a mother, a former Baptist, who knew Scripture and could tell her how Catholic teachings were rooted in the Bible
“The thing the catechist has to give people is that which they will not get on their own,” Morgan said.
Sister Dominic said Morgan’s effectiveness and moral clarity as a catechist are the result of prayer, her relationship with God, and her lived experiences.
“And she’s so humble,” Sister Dominic said. “Her humility is such that she delights in anyone she is teaching becoming a better catechist than her. That’s humility.”
Sister Dominic said Echoing the Mystery is written for catechists and people who have the responsibility to hand on the Catholic faith to future generations. She added that the book can be used with any catechetical series on the market.
“I’m really excited about this,” Sister Dominic said. “I think anybody who teaches religious education or catechesis just needs to have a copy of that, the Catechism, a Bible, and they’re good to go.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer