Case Study I (North Carolina); Transforming a Parish School

“Don’t give up on your parish schools. Schools are great challenges, but don’t be afraid to make the hard decisions,” urges Father Lucas Rossi, who serves as pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and School in Gastonia, N.C.

“It’s worth it to go through the difficult times,” Fr. Rossi continues. “Remind yourself that it’s Jesus’s school. If He wants it to succeed, it will. In the varying challenges that come from year to year, keep your eyes fixed on Christ.”

Fr. Rossi has seen his fair share of challenging times at St. Michael’s and other Catholic schools that he has been affiliated with, yet he still loves being involved with the schools. “As long as Jesus Christ remains the center of everything we do, I’m confident that the blessings will be rich and abundant.” 

A ‘clarification of mission’

Fr. Rossi was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Charlotte in 2010. He has served at Catholic churches in Winston-Salem, Charlotte, and Salisbury, N.C., and spent a brief time discerning a monastic vocation with the monks at Belmont Abbey College, which is recognized in The Newman Guide. Since 2018, he has served as pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and Parish in Gastonia, N.C., which has a PK-8 parish school.

St. Katharine Drexel was a generous benefactor of the school, and the Sisters of Mercy staffed it for many years. Initially started in a parishioner’s five-bedroom home, the school moved to its permanent campus in 1952. In 2018, the school received a large private donation and a grant from the Diocese of Charlotte to undergo a major renovation of its facilities. 

But the physical renovation wasn’t the only change that the school was undergoing. There was also a deeper revitalization that was beginning to take place.

Fr. Rossi and a group of committed parents—many affiliated with Belmont Abbey College—set-out to clarify the mission of St. Michael’s Catholic School. He strongly desired for students to experience “wonder” and be “shaped by encountering the true, good, and beautiful” through an integrated curriculum. He believed that “every subject ought to point to God.”

“The school needed a clarification of mission. What do we offer? Was saying ‘We are a Catholic school’ enough to set us apart from other schools in our area? Not really,” said Fr. Rossi.

And so began a three-year transition of the school’s curriculum and training of its teachers to strengthen the school’s academics and Catholic identity. Unfortunately, the first year of the transition happened to coincide with the COVID pandemic in 2020. The school’s enrollment took a hit and dropped to about 85 students, from about 140 the prior year. Still, the efforts moved forward. 

Putting first things first

Despite initial low enrollment numbers, Fr. Rossi still felt the support of much of his staff and many Catholic families who desired strong Catholic education.

Together with the academic revival, Fr. Rossi embarked on a sacramental revitalization as well. He added both Confession and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament six times each week. Ahead of the 2022 academic year, he announced that the school day would begin with a daily 8:00 a.m. Mass. 

Families from all over the Charlotte area began to hear about the changes happening at St. Michael’s, and many were drawn to it. For some families, the addition of daily Mass was the final sign they needed to enroll at St. Michael’s. In the 2022-23 school year, enrollment was impressively up to about 165 students. 

“Jesus is our Master Teacher, and so He gets the first class of the day,” Fr. Rossi smiled. “It’s not about losing time; we’re gaining the best ever at the feet of Christ. It feels right. I hope more Catholic schools do this.”

Now, after a year of daily Masses to begin the school day, Fr. Rossi believes there’s been a big impact on the culture of the school. The daily Mass has been “unbelievably transformative,” he stated. 

Fr. Rossi believes he has a much better relationship with students because he sees them at least at Mass every day. He also loves seeing many parents staying for Mass and attending with their children.

Building strong families

“What we do at the school needs to be reinforced by the parents at home, otherwise our efforts are nearly pointless,” says Fr. Rossi. “Our mission is to ‘build strong families,’ and that’s why we’re here.”

One devotion encouraged among St. Michael’s families is the First Friday devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the first Friday of each month, homeschoolers are welcome to join the school community for Mass and Adoration, catechetical activities, and athletic activities led by student-athletes from Belmont Abbey College. Students are split into “households” named after Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, so that they can enjoy the day with students of different ages and families and “compete” against other households in friendly competitions.

Fr. Rossi enjoys being involved in First Friday activities, greeting the children on the playground, reading books in the classroom, and even bringing his “Sacristy Road Show” into the classroom.

The students—and the responsibility he feels as a spiritual father—have kept Fr. Rossi committed to the school, despite the challenges of the past three years. He’s excited to help St. Michael’s in continuing to “strive to be the best classical, Catholic school that St. Michael’s can be.”

“I don’t think any saint would have ever said they’re holy enough,” he says. “You have to keep adapting year after year. You have to keep enhancing what you’re doing well and what you can do better.”

Another bright light for St. Michael’s was the addition of a new headmaster in 2023: Jacob Nolan, who previously served as assistant principal of Lumen Verum Academy in Boston and earned his master’s in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which is recognized in The Newman Guide. 

“We’re very excited about the leadership he’s bringing to the school,” said Fr. Rossi, who sees the relationship between pastor and headmaster as a “key piece” in building up a faithful school. Nolan and Fr. Rossi will meet and pray together weekly, and both will strive to set an example of “living the faith on and off campus” as “spiritual leaders” for the community.

“The ultimate goal is Heaven,” Fr. Rossi says. “We’re not just here to impart knowledge and to give facts, but to help students encounter Christ through their education, their teachers.”

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