Column by Jonathan Nagy
The German poet Charles Bukowski once rhetorically asked the question, “Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” This deeply reflective thought takes many people back to the beginning and causes each of us to ask some good questions. The question that arises in my mind is, “Where did it all begin?”
January is often seen as a time for a fresh start. Many create new year resolutions, such as losing weight, reading more, or spending time with family. The beginnings also allow for a clean slate of 365 chances, a slate as clean as a freshly fallen snow. This month can be a time of reflection on what was, in addition to looking ahead at the possibilities of what could be.
This month we also celebrate our Catholic schools. It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one how much I believe in Catholic education. I could spend this entire article talking about the benefits, including academics, athletics, and more, but I would like to take you on a faith-journey. My faith-journey. For if not for my time spent in Catholic education, I know my faith would not be as strong as it is today. Above all in this world, we need faithful individuals, and they are cultivated in our Catholic schools.
My introduction to Catholic education came at a very young age. I spent the earliest years of my life living directly across the street from Saint Joseph Parish (now Holy Family) and School in Portage, and just down the street from the Sacred Heart Kindergarten. As early as I can remember, I knew that I was going to attend both schools. I grew up in a multi-faith household, with my father’s family Catholic and my mother’s family Methodist. Irregardless of the Christian denomination of my family members, they all saw the value in a faith-based Catholic education. Both sets of grandparents supported me and my siblings in various ways as we made our journey from kindergarten through graduation from Bishop Carroll Catholic High School. My parents made the decision, even when times were tough, to make sure that our Catholic education was a priority. I can never thank them enough for starting me on the path that I now continue to enjoy.
I have had great teachers, priests, and other individuals help along the way, not by being extraordinarily different, but by being their extraordinary selves. My earliest teachers were the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart. I learned discipline, love, and kindness from these dear sisters. I have had the pleasure of knowing and associating with several of them in my adulthood as well. A few years ago, at the completion of a wonderful 40 Hours Eucharistic Devotion procession at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies in Loretto, Father John Byrnes was thanking me for the work I did in helping to make the event a success. My kindergarten teacher, Sister Theresa Marie Kukla, who happened to be standing next to me, gave me a sideways glance and with a smirk said, “You didn’t turn out so bad after all!” Sister unfortunately passed away a year and a half ago, but that story, and everything she did for me as her student over 30 years ago, will stay with me forever.
I have encountered other great teachers over my years of schooling. While I may not have remembered the material that they taught or that I was even a good student in their classes, the life lessons and their example-leading behaviors have impacted me more than they will ever know. My first-grade teacher at Saint Joe’s, Lisa (Patterson) Prebish, in her first year of teaching, was so loving and caring for my whole class. To this day, I remember, and she reminds me, of the time she carried me on her shoulders because I hurt my leg. Her compassion towards me in that situation and many others made me feel comfortable in school. Our weekly Masses at Saint Joe’s are also great memories for me, where I learned to appreciate all aspects of worship.
As a timid freshman at BCCHS, I knew very few people and I did not want to be the center of anyone’s attention, but then I met some extraordinary individuals who took me under their wings. Mrs. Mary Jo Butch became, as I called her, “School Mom.” She always took the time to ask me how I was, to check up on me, and to relay to my own mother how I was doing in school. Her genuine kindness was what got me through some very tough days in high school, and I was privileged enough that when I returned to Husky Hill as a teacher, she became a good friend. I had other wonderful people teach me at BC, including Judy Rickard, who I know at times was frustrated with my lack of care or understanding of the periodic table, but who had the patience to work with me. I struggled in math, but the dedication of Jan Burley helped to see that I could actually do it! I would be remiss if I did not mention the persistence of Mary Parrish in ensuring that I knew discipline and how discipline leads to success. There are so many wonderful examples, both past and present, of adults who have nurtured students lovingly and kindly at Bishop Carroll.
Speaking of my time at BC, I made some amazing friends. We hung out with each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and several of us still keep in touch today. Many of my friends have gone on to successful careers in their fields. While none of
that seems overly extraordinary, the characteristic that does stand out was the devotion to the faith. We always made it to Sunday Mass, no matter what. We never skipped a Holy Day of Obligation. Everyone did service at their parishes, whether altar serving, singing in the choir, playing the organ, or more. I am happy today to witness my friends passing those qualities on to their own children.
Many priests have been put on my faith-journey path that have guided me in positive directions. I was baptized by the late Father Dan O’Neill, who was a close family friend until his death. He was around at family functions and had a personal care and concern for me and my siblings. He helped my father through tough times as well, and I witnessed in this holy man someone who was generally empathetic towards others. One of my greatest priest-mentors was the late Msgr. Arnold Gaus. Msgr. Gaus was the one that encouraged me to pursue playing the organ at Mass and fostering my musical abilities. As someone who never had any proper training, he put a lot of faith in me. I guarantee that had he not approached that timid high school student about playing the organ at Mass, that same timid high school student would not have turned into the music director at the Basilica today. Finally, I met Father Matthew Reese while he was a seminarian. My religion teacher, Father John Slovikovski, brought him in to talk to our class. Little did I know what a great friend he would become to me years later. Each has made an invaluable impact on my life. Thank you to all of our dedicated priests!
My current teaching colleagues, several of which taught me in high school, have also been instrumental in my personal faith journey. I see the example they set for the students in their classrooms, with prayers and their leadership. We have spent a great deal of time together discussing our faith through retreats and in-services. The Christian witness that they display through their actions and dedication to BC have helped me become a better, more devoted person. I am truly privileged to work with not only great people, but great friends.
Finally, perhaps the great current influences on my personal faith journey are my students. I look up to them as much as they look up to me. I strive to do better and be better because of them. I hold myself to a higher level because they hold me there. I learn compassion and care by watching how they interact with each other. I understand the challenges they face and their perseverance in the face of difficulty in an inspiration to me every day. I welcome their questions about the faith and where my journey has taken me. I had a student a few weeks ago ask me, “Mr. Nagy, do you really enjoy all of the time that you spend in church?” I resoundingly said, “YES!!!!” I do truly enjoy it. In fact, I cherish and love that time spent either on my own or in fellowship with other worshipers. I know I would not be where I am with my faith today without a Catholic education.
I have illustrated some examples of great individuals that have helped me on my faith-journey. As my late Uncle Tom would say, “These are ordinary people living extraordinary lives.” And what ties them all together to me? Catholic schools. I credit my devotion to my faith to the positive forces that I have had in my life from Sacred Heart kindergarten until the present time in my current position as Dean of Students at Bishop Carroll, where I have been for the last 16 years.
Returning to the opening quote by Charles Bukowski, I can answer my follow-up question of where it all began. I know that my personal faith-journey began in Catholic education and continues today. The values of that schooling go far beyond the tangibles. I am still who I am today because Catholic education has taught me who I am, and the world has no place in telling me who I should be. Who am I? I am a child of God, and so are each one of you, and you cannot put a price on that!
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.