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Home schoolers meet in Edmonton.

The King's University College in Edmonton was the setting on June 6-7, 1997, for the first Western Canadian Catholic Home School Conference. Featured speakers were James Stenson, Dr. Michael Ferri, Terese Ferri, Julia Fogassy, Joan Baruta, and Therese MacDonald representing TORCH (Traditions of Roman Catholic Homes). Just under 300 people attended, representing all four western provinces and Ontario. While the majority of participants were married couples, there were priests, religious sisters, and some single lay people in attendance.

The weekend began Thursday evening (with Mass and enthronement of the Blessed Sacrament), with talks running Friday and Saturday. Vendors displayed a wide variety of Catholic books, videos, software, games and curricula. Several Catholic colleges and correspondence schools were on hand to discuss homeschooling and post-secondary options with parents. Daily Mass, perpetual adoration, daily rosary, and fellowship with other homeschoolers enriched all who attended.

The presence of clergy and religious at this conference was a blessing, particularly for those parents whose homeschooling efforts are met with misunderstanding or suspicion in their local parishes or dioceses. Sr. Yvonne Patry (Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul) from Picton, ON, remarked, "It's marvellous to see so many Catholic families who take their job of parenting seriously," adding that the conference had nourished her spiritually as well. The priests spoke on Magisterial documents pertaining to the family (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality and the Holy Father's Letter To Families, among others). They also offered daily Mass and were available throughout the weekend for spiritual direction and reconciliation.

Although there are no quotable statistics, it is safe to assume that the number of conference participants represents only a fraction of Catholic homeschoolers across the nation. It is difficult to tally the number of Catholic children being homeschooled in Canada: some students are registered with separate school boards, some with public boards, some with their provincial ministry of education, and some are not registered at all (those under the age of 7 and older than 16, who are not legally required to register; and those whose parents refuse to register on principle). Since homeschooling families tend to be larger than the national average (various couples at the conference were expecting their 6th, 7th, even 10th child), it is probable that the number of Catholic homeschooled children in Canada figures modestly in the thousands.

Why home-schooling?

When I asked parents their principal reason for choosing home-based education, the response was unanimous (or perhaps I should say universal): "We want our children to have a Catholic education"; "I wanted to teach the Faith"; "We want to give our children a solid foundation in the Faith"; "I wanted to have a more closely Catholic program." Lisa Becolay of Cold Lake, Alberta, summed it up: "[We want] to make them living saints." While academics were acknowledged to be vital, they were not central: spiritual formation was foremost on the priority list of every parent I spoke with.

The conference talks mirrored this: relatively few were geared specifically to academics (Julia Fogassy's "History and Geography -- a Catholic Approach" was one exception). Most of the speakers addressed issues of compelling interest to all Catholic parents, homeschooling or not: our duty to foster the domestic church, form our children in virtue, and teach the faith in its fullness. Keynote speaker James Stenson's Lifeline: Religious and Moral Formation of Children would have benefitted any Christian parent. (Editor: reviewed in Catholic Insight, July-August, 1997, by Kathline Nitsch, not Fr. Kennedy as stated, page 27).

Dissatisfaction with the present school system rated as the second most common motivation for choosing home education. One concern is the educational establishment's preoccupation with providing "information" divorced from belief or values of any kind. Even the best separate schools get it backwards when they strive to "integrate faith" into school life. In her talk Complementing Faith with Academics, Terese Ferri exhorted Catholic parents to ask themselves not, "How can we integrate our faith into our school," but rather "What role does formal education have in the process of sanctification?"

Many parents believe that the pursuit of holiness has ceased to be a priority even in separate schools. Dana Grondin of Cold Lake, AB, who described her local school as Catholic "in name only," told me that the Lakeland separate board offers sex education starting in grade one (optional to grade six) with mandatory sex education in high school. "Yet they're considering making the religion classes optional . . . the whole thing is twisted," said Mrs. Grondin, adding, "we believe it's our place to teach them [sex education], not the school's."

Parental authority comes first

The Church-sanctioned principle of subsidiarity (that schools must support the authority of parents and not vice versa) is being violated in many schools across Canada. Joe and Marianne Wourms of Kamloops, B.C., related how their daughter was told by her teacher to attend a Fully Alive class (which the teacher had decided was "harmless"), even though the Wourms had explicitly stated their child was to be exempted from the entire Fully Alive program. Mr. Wourms related with dismay that Fully Alive was being taught in the time period allotted to catechism class, and "religion [went] out the window." Furthermore, the Wourms deem it inappropriate for `Catholic' teachers who disregard the Church's teaching on sexuality to be conducting sex education classes. "[Children] have to see it lived out," said Mr. Wourms.

Church teaching upholds the primacy of parental authority in the entire educational process, and homeschooling families are laying claim to this right. Fr. Paul Moret of Drayton Valley, AB, considers this a positive move: "Unfortunately parents really don't have control in the school system as it presently exists . . . it is important that control gets back into the hands of the parents, and not so much in the hands of the `educators' . . . [meaning] not just the teachers . . . but the `intelligentsia,' the ones who are imposing all sorts of teachings and values which are not in accordance with what most parents believe."

Despite this loss of control, the decision to homeschool rarely happens overnight; many parents withdraw only after being repeatedly frustrated with efforts to make a difference in the schools. Val Anderson of North Battleford, SK, had always been very involved in her children's education, but became increasingly disheartened when she tried to communicate concerns to the school. "What became obvious to me . . . was that my opinion as a parent didn't stand for very much at all," said Mrs. Anderson. "By the time we were done the process [letter-writing, attending parent-board `dialogues'] it became obvious that what we were doing was futile. There wasn't a two-way communication . . . it wasn't the beginning of my disillusionment, it was the end."

Social reasons

Parents also choose homeschooling for social reasons. Elizabeth Kerschbaum of Drumheller, AB, expressed a desire for her two teenage children to bond with their younger siblings. "They couldn't do that if they were away in school all day, and then gone with their friends in the evening," said Mrs. Kerschbaum. Family bonding is a recurring theme among homeschooling families: even if not explicitly sought, it comes as a pleasant byproduct of living, praying and learning together. Twelve-year-old Robin Anderson of North Battleford, SK, stated, "My faith has really grown a lot, and I'm a lot closer to my Mom; I didn't realize I was so far away from her until I started homeschooling. We do a lot of things together now . . . ." She added, with a laugh, "I can get along with my brothers a lot easier than I used to."

There was also a desire among families to avoid the adverse side of "socialization." Micheal Hudec of North Battleford, SK, said, "Even if you have a good school system with good teachers, you still have a lot of negative peer pressure from other children." Maureen McLane, also from Battleford, SK, agreed: "[A]ctually the school was quite good; it's what went on at recess . . . ." Homeschooling parents believe that true socialization happens best within the family and society at large, where children can interact regularly with people from all age groups. The peer segregation found in schools is considered an artificial environment which is repeated nowhere else in society.

To those who accuse homeschoolers of sheltering their children from the `real' world, Joe Wourms replies, "We're homeschooling out of love, not out of fear . . . . I'm not afraid of the world." Most Catholic home educators see their homes not as fortresses in which to hide, but as greenhouses, where future evangelizers can be nurtured and strengthened before being transplanted into the world.

When I asked Fr. Paul Moret what fruits he sees coming from the Catholic homeschooling movement, he replied: "I'm seeing young people who are very solidly grounded in their faith. They face the same temptations and rebellions as other young people, but they know their stuff . . . and they're very strong. I think one of the biggest difficulties we're facing right now is ignorance of the teachings of the Church. We need an educated laity, and it's going to transform the whole church when the laity are educated and able to influence others in their families and in society."

Fr. Leon Desjardins of Le Goff, AB, sees more than an educated laity emerging from homeschooling families. "This is where our vocations are coming from," said Fr. Desjardins. He continued: "Homeschooling families are foundational; they are living the rudiments and basis of Christian and Catholic family living. [In this] environment, it's automatic that vocations are fostered. I know of several homeschooling families that already have teens and young adults who are in the seminary and in novitiates . . . ."

The many benefits of homeschooling are not gained without struggle, however. Homeschooling damands commitment, work, prayer, sacrifice, and above all, a total reliance upon God's grace. In his final talk, "Reasons for Hope," James Stenson exhorted parents to remain focussed on the `big picture,' rather than becoming overwhelmed by the piles of laundry, anxiety over curriculum choices, and the demands of family life. "You parents are making history," he said, reminding us that even the smallest acts of love will have a transforming impact on the Church, society, and the whole world.

The WCCHS conference, which had been long awaited by homeschooling parents, gave many of us just the shot in the arm that we needed. I am not alone in hoping that this will become an annual event.

Mariette Ulrich writes from Swift Current, SK. Those interested in acquiring the WCCHS Conference talks may write St. Joseph's Communications, 6209-44th St., Lloydminster, AB, T9V 1V8; or call Fr. Ron Dechant (403) 871-5944.
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Author:Ulrich, Mariette
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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