Parochial schools have a reputation for bolstering the faith.
But it’s not only the students whose faith lives are impacted by a Catholic school education. Sometimes, non-Catholic teachers and staff are so impacted by the schools’ mission that they are compelled to enter the Church.
Diocese of Little Rock Catholic Schools Office associate superintendent Ileana Dobbins has been in the Catholic school system for 30 years, before she was even Catholic.
“My mom was born and raised in Puerto Rico and was raised Catholic, but when they moved to southeast Arkansas, there wasn’t a Catholic church,” Dobbins said. “So she raised us in the Baptist church.”
Dobbins met her husband, a cradle Catholic, in college. Dobbins began teaching sixth grade at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock as she and her husband went back and forth, going to a Baptist church one weekend, and a Catholic church the next. When Dobbins was preparing to have her first child, her father fell ill, and she found herself going back to the Catholic Church.
“I knew that we needed to be cohesive,” Dobbins said. “That’s when I decided to join the Catholic Church.”
Dobbins said teaching at a parochial school gave her the much needed nudge to join the faith.
“I can remember being in my classroom one of my first years teaching, and we had the windows open,” Dobbins said. “I remember an ambulance drove by and one of my students raised their hand and said, ‘Should we say a prayer?’ And it was natural. All of the students would stop and want to do that. That was probably my first, ‘You know, this is different — not all kids are going to do that,’ moment.”
Dobbins fondly remembers the impact attending the children’s Masses had on her faith life.
“One of the things I miss most about being in a Catholic school is Mass, and listening to the children sing,” Dobbins said. “That’s the most beautiful thing. I think it had a huge impact.”
Dobbins came into the Church in 1994 during the Easter vigil. The following Monday, she gave birth to her first child.
Dobbins taught at Holy Souls for two more years before pursuing a master’s degree in school counseling, then teaching in the North Little Rock School District. Dobbins returned to Holy Souls in 1998 as an assistant principal. In 2003, she became the principal and remained in that position for 15 years.
She transitioned to the Catholic Schools Office in 2018.
“Praying with family, praying with students, praying with coworkers is such a gift,” Dobbins said.
Payden Reynolds, junior high history teacher at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville, had a similar experience. Growing up in Oklahoma, Reynolds and his family “bounced around from church to church.”
Reynolds met his wife, who is Catholic, in college. Reynolds learned some aspects of the Catholic faith through occasionally attending Mass with his wife, but he would become more deeply involved through the lens of his subject: history.
Reynolds, who has been teaching at St. Joseph for a year and a half, often had class discussions with students about the history of the Catholic Church and how the Church has progressed over time.
“What really pushed me over was when I was sitting in adoration with my students,” Reynolds said. “I just had this clarity, and I went with it.”
Just a few months after working at St. Joseph, Reynolds began the RCIA process.
“With my wife being Catholic, I was part of it, but it was from the outside looking in,” Reynolds said. “It was a slow, gradual buildup, and I think being immersed in it really helped push me over.”
While teaching his students history, Reynolds’s own faith began to deepen.
“Any time a student had more of a moral or ethical question about the Church, I found myself asking our principal, Deacon Jason (Pohlmeier), and Father (Jason) Tyler,” Reynolds said. “I would constantly go to them and ask, ‘Hey, what’s the viewpoint on this? Is this considered an act of evil or not?’ And we would sit there and have discussions and talk.”
Reynolds was welcomed into the Church in April.
Lucie Cape, art teacher at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville, spent many years around Catholic culture. But working in a Catholic school and visiting Italy brought her into the fold.
Cape attended a Baptist church her whole life, and her husband was baptized as Baptist when they married. Four years after marrying, the two moved to New Orleans.
“And that’s when I was opened up to another world of faith,” Cape said. “I can remember being in the grocery store on Ash Wednesday the first year that we lived down there. … I had never seen people that had ashes on their foreheads. That was so foreign to me.”
Cape enrolled her children in Ursuline Academy, a well-known Catholic school in New Orleans. Her daughter and Catholic friends began to teach Cape about the faith, bringing her to adoration and giving her informational booklets.
After 14 years of living in New Orleans, Cape and her family moved back to Fayetteville. She began working as the St. Joseph School art teacher in 2012.
“I attended Mass with the students, and I just felt for years this pull of community, and I wanted to participate in Mass fully,” Cape said. “I remember asking Father Tyler … what I needed to do to take Communion … and he said that I would have to take RCIA classes.”
For years, Cape thought about the conversation.
“Every year, when we go to the teachers’ meeting in Little Rock, I would be like, ‘OK, next year I’m going to be able to take Communion with everyone, and I’m going to do this,’” Cape said.
In May, Cape took a three-week trip to Italy and felt something inside her change.
“After being in Rome and going to all of the different churches and to the Vatican and everything, I thought, ‘How could you be anything but Catholic?’” Cape said. “This is the seat of Christianity. After seeing where Paul was and Jesus was and all the places knowing that he’d been there, that the Roman Catholic Church is still there and it’s all over the world simultaneously … that was just really powerful to me.”
Upon returning, Cape and her husband began RCIA. She said Father Alex Smith, associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and administrator at Blessed John Newman University Parish, both in Jonesboro, played a key role in her faith.
“He was at our school for a little over a year, and he was wonderful with the children and all the teachers,” Cape said.
Cape and her husband are currently in RCIA while Cape continues teaching and completing her master’s degree.
Parochial school impacts staff members as well as students. Kate Davis, director of finance at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, was raised “as Southern Baptist as it gets.”
Davis started working at MSM in 2016, converting to Catholicism earlier this summer. For Davis, the universality of the Church is a reminder that she is at home, no matter where she goes.
“I love being part of a body of believers so much bigger than myself or my church,” Davis said. “I love that I can go to Mass at any parish and know I’m getting the same teachings and message.”
Mount St. Mary played a key role in Davis’s faith journey.
“It was the primary contributing factor,” Davis said. “I didn’t know anything about Catholicism before working at MSM besides the typical comments that people say about praying to Mary and whatnot. We have a lot of employees who are converts or have spouses that are converts – lots of people with experience that paved the way. Particularly Kelly Wewers, my sponsor, and Josh Salman, our campus minister, both encouraged and guided me on my journey. The lack of pressure to be Catholic at MSM, and the acceptance of anyone, no matter their beliefs, really made me feel comfortable exploring my faith.”
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