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| September 7, 2018 | http://thecatholicspirit.com/?p=74466">The Catholic Spirit

Kindergartners December Hai, right, Johnson Htoo, both members of the Karen community, and Robyn Odhiambo stand in line Sept. 6 as they wait to go to the computer lab. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

It seems like a typical morning school scene: dozens of students pouring out of a bus, backpacks over shoulders, chatting with friends before the 9:30 a.m. bell.

But at St. Jerome School in Maplewood, the sight is nothing short of a miracle, said Principal Anne Gattman.

It also is the answer to prayers fervently offered by the students’ parents, in a language unfamiliar to teachers and staff at the school.

Most of the students are Karen, members of an ethnic community with origins in Myanmar, also known as Burma, in southeast Asia. The families were displaced by civil unrest and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. Forty-six Karen children in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled at St. Jerome this year.

In the past decade, Karen families — some of them Catholic — have immigrated to the United States. In 2011, Karen Catholics began to arrive in St. Paul, where they started looking for both a Catholic parish and school for their children.

Enter Brother — now Deacon — Seraphim Wirth of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. He is the reason these students now comprise one-third of St. Jerome’s student population.

It began with a phone call in 2011 while he was serving the community’s St. Paul friary as a porter, which involves answering the phone and the front door. Late one afternoon, he picked up the phone and tried to understand the caller’s words. All he could decipher was “want to go to Catholic.”

Not wanting any further struggle for understanding, he suggested that the caller come to the friary the next day.

That the man did, with his wife and daughter. What Deacon Seraphim didn’t know was the man, Pah Chi, had received a rosary that originally came from the brothers, which is why he called the friary. What Pah Chi didn’t know was that, after hanging up the phone, Deacon Seraphim started thinking almost immediately that “there was something” to this encounter.

“I thought, if they come in tomorrow, well then, maybe it’s something I’m supposed to do,” Deacon Seraphim said.

So began an apostolate in which the brothers have been engaged ever since. Shortly after the brothers started working with them, the Karen (pronounced “kah-REN”) families pushed for their children to go to Catholic schools. A few families were able to afford it, but most earned too little money to pay tuition.

Deacon Seraphim tried unsuccessfully for several years to find affordable Catholic education for the families, then started to lose steam in his efforts. The financial obstacles were twofold. First, the former refugees needed tuition assistance beyond what a school could provide. Second, there was the need for busing. All of the families live on St. Paul’s east side and attend St. Casimir, which is 2 miles from the nearest Catholic school. Thus, a bus would need to be chartered for the entire school year.

The cost: $30,000.

It was extra money neither the brothers nor any school they had contacted possessed. By summer 2017, Deacon Seraphim was running out of ideas — and hope.

Finding a home at St. Jerome

A chance visit to St. Jerome while running a vacation Bible camp with the Missionary Sisters of Charity eventually provided the answer.

Because many of the Karen children play soccer, Deacon Seraphim wanted to organize a field trip involving the sport. He chose St. Jerome because of its large athletic field. In August 2017, he brought the children there to play soccer for part of a day.

Gattman, just weeks into her job as principal of the school, was looking out the window and saw the students. She wondered what school they were attending. About a week later, after learning that the brothers were involved in the camp, she called the friary and left a message for Deacon Seraphim asking where the children were going to school.

“I ignored it for a month and a half,” he said, figuring this would be yet another school that would turn down the Karen children for financial reasons.

Finally, after leaving in September for studies at St. Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, he called Gattman back. They talked several times. Her excitement grew over the prospect of 46 new students, nearly half the school’s total K-8 enrollment last year.

“The more that I visited with Brother Seraphim and got to know some of the people in the community, the more I felt that it was really a beautiful situation for St. Jerome to grow enrollment and to provide Catholic education to parents that were desperately wanting their children to be in Catholic schools,” Gattman said. “And so, it just seemed like a partnership that was logical at the moment. As we continued to work together, it’s become a project that is more than just logical, but it just feels very God driven.”

Divine intervention may have come in the form of a $90,000 grant from an anonymous donor. It will cover both busing for the year and tuition assistance. The families’ contribution will be determined on a sliding scale based on what they can afford. Gattman noted that no family was turned down by the school for financial reasons.

A year ago, five children from two families were able to attend St. Jerome. It was an important warm-up for this year, when some of the grades will have up to eight Karen students, and every grade will have at least three — a significant proportion when the average class size is 16.

An immediate challenge is learning names. In the Karen culture, people do not use first and last names. Names are a series of two to four words. Each family member, including both parents, has a unique name and unique number of words in his or her name.

Then, there’s the language barrier. Children know English and are mostly caught up with their American-born classmates. But, their parents don’t speak English, and the children must navigate between the language they speak at school and the language they speak at home. There is also a language barrier between school personnel and parents.

The school sought to address that challenge with the hiring of Dah Po, who is Karen and who will serve as a liaison between the school and Karen community.

“It is great” that Karen children are attending St. Jerome, said Dah Po, 29. The parents “are so happy. They believe the kids who are sent to St. Jerome School … will be improved with everything — with behavior, with education, with religion.”

Her sentiment was echoed by one of the parents of children who attended last year. Naw Mu has three children, all girls, at St. Jerome this year, in kindergarten, third and sixth grade. With Dah Po interpreting, she said that one of her daughters improved her grades at St. Jerome last year, and all of her children are thriving at the school.

“When she came here, every subject, she got [an] A,” Naw Mu said. “I love it because the teachers teach very well.”

Teachers get ready for challenges

Teachers prepared for the new school year, which began Sept. 4, with training to help overcome language barriers and address emotional issues that some students may experience.

More resources, however, have been made available. The Minneapolis-based GHR Foundation has provided a grant that will allow the school to hire an English language teacher. The school also has paraprofessionals, tutors and two young adults from Teach for Christ, an organization that sends men and women to serve at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“We’re trying to kind of front-load enough support so that, academically, teachers are ready, [and] the emotional, social issues of the students can be addressed and understood,” Gattman said. “They [teachers] are just so fired up and positive and anxious and eager, and I’m really, really excited for the group of people that is going to be working with our kids. Lots of good energy, lots of faithful people.”

The teachers are hoping to create an environment in their classrooms that allows the Karen students to thrive. And, hopefully, it will offset some of the hardships they’ve faced coming from refugee families.

“I’m excited to give them a second home so that they can feel loved,” said second-grade teacher Shelly Berthiaume, who is entering her 13th year at St. Jerome and has five Karen students in her class of 16. “I think it will be great. It’s a safe, loving environment.”

She also expects it to be beneficial for her non-Karen students because they’ll learn about another culture. The school plans to weave aspects of Karen culture into the school year, and Gattman hopes the parents will be able to visit.

With 75 Karen families at St. Casimir, Gattman and Deacon Seraphim expect similar Karen enrollment next year, perhaps even increasing in the future. But, with the grant only covering this year, they know more funds will be needed.

“It’s always a lot of trust,” Deacon Seraphim said. “God asked us to do that, and that’s the key. You don’t really always know what’s in front of just the first step you take. … I wouldn’t have started it if I wasn’t convinced that God’s hand was with it and it was going to keep going.”

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