Former head of Catholic schools in Memphis speaks to
more than 800 teachers at ‘back to school’ event
As the more than 14,000 Catholic school children in the Archdiocese of Louisville returned to school this month, their teachers prepared for the new year by praying together and hearing from speakers about how they can be “the arms of God.”
More than 800 Catholic school teachers from 38 grade schools attended a special Mass and program on Aug. 10 at St. Margaret Mary Church.
Father J. Mark Spalding, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Louisville, gave the homily, and Dr. Mary McDonald, former superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Memphis, spoke to the teachers about her experiences in education.
Both told the teachers that they are called to be holy, to pray and to help bring their students to God.
McDonald, who worked in Catholic education for 36 years and now serves as a consultant, said each time she tried a new job — from teacher to principal to superintendent — she initially began to flounder and fail. But each time, she said, she prayed fervently for Jesus to intervene.
The first time, when she became a teacher, she said Christ’s response came clearly to her in answer: She should focus on “making Christ present to the students in my class” and aim to “lift them up” in addition to her teaching duties.
In Catholic schools, she noted, “We are excellent at academics, but we are amazing at making Christ present to the people we serve.”
When she became principal, she said, she felt like she was drowning after having to call emergency services twice on the first day of school.
“Once again, Jesus pulled me up and said, ‘Mary, you get back up and … make me present to the people you serve.’ Instead of focusing on the little things, I focused on making Christ present. It wasn’t easy, but I felt like this is what I’m called to do.”
McDonald said her biggest challenge came when she was asked to be superintendent.
The bishop met with her on her first day and said he wanted to reopen urban schools in a part of town where they’d closed, and he wanted to open new schools in the suburbs. And, she noted, he told her there was no money to accomplish these goals.
McDonald said she left the meeting feeling angry and overwhelmed. In her prayer that night, she said, she asked for help to accomplish these things and, in her anger, asked why God wouldn’t wrap his arms around children in need and take care of these problems.
“I accused God of not having any arms, of not taking care of the children,” she told the teachers.
That moment of anger soon after became the impetus behind McDonald’s mission.
Her inspiration happened during a meeting in San Diego, she noted. She was attending Mass in a chapel that had a seven-foot crucifix whose arms had broken off. When she saw it, she remembered her prayer and accusation. The pastor of the church told her the crucifix came from Rome and he intended to have it repaired, but that the sisters with whom he served suggested they leave it that way as a reminder that “we are God’s arms in the world and must do his work,” McDonald recounted.
“That was a message for me; God was speaking to me,” she said. “I was going to do this job. And little by little, we did it.”
By the time she retired, the Diocese of Memphis grew from having 14 schools to 29, and many of those were urban schools. In fact, her affirmation came as the fourth urban school reopened.
It was a school that had been closed for more than three decades, she noted.
Seeing the door to that school’s attic, she and the principal ventured in to see what might have been stored there. What she found sent her reeling, she said. There in the attic was a seven-foot crucifix with no arms.
“I almost passed out,” she said. “I must have looked like I had a heart attack.
“I never tell principals how to decorate their schools, but I told him, ‘We must hang this in the front hall of the school to remind us we are the arms of God.’ ”
Teachers in the Archdiocese of Louisville also are the arms of God, she said.
“You matter. Your work matters. You are truly God’s arms in the world, and you are doing his work, lifting people up,” she added.
McDonald’s presentation was followed by Mass, during which Father Spalding urged the teachers to heed McDonald’s words.
“What did we hear and see?” he asked the teachers. “We heard a woman of faith preach and teach us this morning. That’s your challenge this year — to do the same.”
He called on the teachers to preach to and teach their children in order to “connect the desk to the altar.”
“We need to connect more and more and more the desk to the altar,” he said. “We must connect what we do in the classroom to what we do in church.” Father Spalding added that teachers have a tough job and said he prays for them.
“The challenge is great, but we can rise to the occasion with faith, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the love God has placed in our hearts.”
By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor