atrick Smith, front row right, accompanies Father Thomas Vala, pastor of St. Clement Parish, Matawan, and a student group from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, to see the recently released film, “Father Stu.” Courtesy photo
atrick Smith, front row right, accompanies Father Thomas Vala, pastor of St. Clement Parish, Matawan, and a student group from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, to see the recently released film, “Father Stu.” Courtesy photo

They are not just teachers in a Catholic school. They are Catholic school teachers.

That is the way that many of the education professionals serving in Catholic schools around the Diocese think of their vocation and life’s work. It helps to remind them of what they are called to do and be on behalf of the Church and in the spirit of the Gospel.  And it makes all the difference in the world in the Christ-centered education that Catholic school students experience in our schools.

Following are reflections shared by four Catholic school teachers who, although hailing from various backgrounds, share the common thread of how they go about bringing the gift of the Catholic faith to the students they serve.

Both Sides of the Teacher’s Desk

As a Catholic school parent, Cynthia Mielo was impressed with the experience her own children had in St. Mary of the Lakes School, Medford, where her family felt they were “part of a very special, faith-filled, community family.”

When she was looking to return to her profession and learned the school had openings for elementary teachers, Mielo said, “Something was calling me to work at St. Mary’s … I can say that it was one of the best decisions I have made.”

Now in her sixth year as a second-grade teacher, Mielo believes that “there is a reason these students were placed in my care. It’s my job to find a way to serve them, help them find their gifts and overcome their challenges. It is my job to help them grow and find their purpose.”

Mielo admitted that the challenges posed by the COVID-19 lockdown helped her to strengthen her bonds with both the St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, where she is a member, and the school.

“I think every teacher I worked with felt an immense loss that year,” she recalled. “Having our Catholic faith to help my classroom family feel safe and protected was another one of God’s gifts.

“I never felt so loved by my students, parents and coworkers. We all stayed strong together and thought of creative ways to keep our little community near and dear to our hearts, whether it was virtual Masses, timed prayer, drive-by birthday wishes, lawn signs or virtual meetings, we all worked so hard to make sure everyone felt loved and safe,” she said.

Of her Catholic school experience, Mielo said what she enjoys most is knowing that she can speak openly about her faith and “that helps me lead by example. I have so much joy seeing my students at Mass, participating with their families, watching my second graders grow in their faith and receive two Sacraments [and] being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist to my students and friends,” she said.

“Everyone has a purpose and I believe that I found mine,” Mielo acknowledged.

No Place Like Home

St. Gregory the Great Academy is very near and dear to Elizabeth Sunkel’s heart. She graduated from the Hamilton Square Catholic school and is now an alumni who is proudly among its faculty.

“After attending Catholic schools for my entire life, I knew I wanted to teach in Catholic education,” said Sunkel, who attended Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, for high school and then received her college education in the University of Scranton, Scranton, Pa.

“It felt like home,” Sunkel said when she was able to return to her grammar school alma mater to teach.

Sunkel, the English language arts instructor for students in grades one through four, said it’s been through her teaching experiences that she learned that “faith and language arts need not be mutually exclusive.

“I make it a point to include our faith in my ELA lessons,” she said. “I have done writing assignments where the students will include faith elements. They may write a reflection on the Sacraments or various holidays. They are given opportunities to share traditions their own families have revolving around religious holiday or events.”

Sunkel added that the “blend between the two arenas” has enabled her to enjoy sharing faith with even her youngest charges – her own children.

“Teaching in a Catholic school has strengthened my own faith life,” she said, noting she makes it a point to share things the school has done with her four-year-old daughter and that her son, who is a second grader in St. Gregory the Great Academy, shares what he learns in his religion classes.

“Seeing my students grow and recognize the talents God has given them is what brings me the most joy in the classroom,” Sunkel said. “We are able to work together to overcome our weaknesses by using the strengths God gives us.”

Prayer, Above All Else

Eileen Baglivio said what she enjoys most about teaching in a Catholic school is “working with children and making their faith come to life.

“Our religion helps shape every aspect of the children I teach,” she said, emphasizing that a Catholic school education is more than academics. “Being able to share Bible stories and using examples of how Jesus lived to help develop good character and acceptance of all people – these skills teach children how to deal with many experiences they will have in their lives.”

With a total of 28 years of service in Catholic education, five of which were spent as a fifth-grade teacher in a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of New York and the past 23 years as a kindergarten teacher in St. Peter School, Point Pleasant Beach, Baglivio believes serving as a Catholic school teacher is a vocation.

“We are helping to teach prayers and develop an understanding of attending Mass,” she said. “Bringing kindergartners to the [school] chapel to say a prayer are very special moments in my day. I use visits to the chapel as a reward for my students.”

Among the ways she tries to enrich her students’ knowledge of the Catholic faith is by keeping them updated on Church and world events and sharing experiences with other Catholic schools on social media “so that we all benefit from new ideas.” An added blessing for her students is interacting with the Franciscan priests from St. Peter Parish and hearing their vocation experiences as missionaries.

Baglivio noted that it’s a personal joy when her vocation as a Catholic school teacher and her vocation as a parent and grandparent intersect in her classroom.

“My most memorable experience was having my grandson grow in faith during the past year when he was in my class,” she admitted. “This year, three grandchildren will be attending St. Peter’s. I feel so thankful, not only in this full circle moment, but with all the ways that Catholic education has impacted my family.”

‘Paying It Forward’

“Sports, teaching and religious belief are not mutually exclusive” has been the mantra of retired wrestling coach Patrick Smith during his tenure in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel.

Smith, who currently serves as the assistant athletic director, and in campus ministry, has taught high school theology for more than two decades. He recalled how his vocation as a Catholic school teacher was planted during the time he was in the seminary, discerning his call from God.

A highlight of his long and storied career was when Smith taught and coached a handicapped student athlete. The story was retold in an award-winning film, “A Shot in The Dark.”

“I believe religion is all about life and enters into every fabric of our lives,” said Smith. “I believe God wants to meet us where we are. I believe that when I said ‘Yes’ to God, I meant yes. My vocation has led me to a life of service. I believe that God has put people in my life when I was younger to catch me when I was falling. I try to be that person to others now.”