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Independent School A Gift To The Church… Holy Angels Academy Celebrates Golden Anniversary

May 16, 2023 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

“Holy Angels Academy is a wonderful example…an example to be imitated.” These words spoken by the Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Louisville, speak volumes about how this independent Catholic school represents a valuable movement in the Church.
Established in 1973, Holy Angels Academy is the longest continuously operating school of its kind in the United States. At a time when many teachings of the Catholic Church were being called into question at all levels of education, there were those faithful Catholics who wanted schools which would preserve a solid catechesis loyal to the Magisterium. Fifty years or so later the widespread effect of poor catechetical instruction and lack of sound spiritual formation in many schools is evident in the fact that many ill formed Catholics have abandoned the faith or know little about it.
Indeed, Bishop Robert Barron at the 2019 meeting of the USCCB lamented to his fellow bishops that we are seeing “. . . in some ways the bitter fruit of the dumbing down of the faith that’s been going on for the past fifty years or so in our very bad catechesis.”
In the 1960s, our culture was ripe for a revolt against Church authority. Some point to the Land O’ Lakes meeting of certain Catholic university representatives in 1967, under the auspices of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. A discussion about the “nature and role of the contemporary Catholic university” culminated in this statement: “To perform its teaching and research effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
Using the words “clerical” and “external” implies that a Catholic institution should have freedom from a higher Church authority (i.e., Rome) outside the university.
A Pandora’s box was opened, releasing a poison of secularism that has contaminated many Catholic institutions to this day — not just in higher education but at the primary and secondary levels as well. Decades before the Land O’ Lakes statement, it was Venerable Fulton J. Sheen who sounded the alarm about what would result if Catholic institutions sought public recognition for prestige. Addressing trustees in 1935, at the Catholic University of America, the prophetic Sheen argued against attempts to make the institution a “Catholic” Harvard. Sheen called for the “primacy of the spiritual” in Catholic education.
Interestingly, of the universities represented in 1967, the Catholic University of America was the sole institution that did not affix its signature to the aforementioned statement.
Yet in the midst of turmoil, confusion, and outright heresy, God always gives man an avenue to walk the path of truth. Small but faithful colleges and independent schools began to spring up as an answer; but some of the independent schools have since closed their doors in the face of the monumental challenges. How has Holy Angels Academy been able to sustain herself, barely surviving at times, over a fifty-year period? Does this school provide a blueprint for success?
Headmaster Emeritus and trustee Joseph Norton, having retired from his leadership position last June, put it in simple terms: “There is no perfect blueprint. It takes patience, perseverance, and total dependence on Divine Providence.” Norton cites the patient perseverance and faith of those who began the academy and faced struggles in the early years before his arrival. “I heard that the founders at times gave of their limited means to keep the doors open,” says Norton. He laughs when he exclaims that he arrived when kerosene heaters were used in the classrooms to lower the heating bills!
Then there were what he calls the “transient” years of moving from one location to another until money was available to build a facility on a ten-acre campus in 2005. Norton credits his predecessor, co-founder and first principal, Sr. Mary Elise Groves, OP, for setting an example as “a person of strong faith, and an iron will to persevere, who suffered much for the salvation of souls.”
Blessed with increased financial support after many lean years, Holy Angels is now embarking on a project to finish classroom space to meet the needs of an increased enrollment, as well as to finally add a gymnasium. However, Norton cautions, “It’s not all about numbers and facilities; it’s about imparting truth, goodness, and beauty for the minds and souls of our young people. When it comes to numbers, there is the ripple effect where God chooses a few to reach many as Christ did with the apostles.”
While recognizing that nice facilities can attract students and have their benefits in an educational environment, he likes to quote an old college professor who told him: “When it comes down to it, we can teach with you on one end of the log and me on the other.” Norton also emphasizes that while planning is good, much of what happens is “organic,” developing over time — “in God’s time.”
Holy Angels is now joined by a healthy and growing number of independent schools with the same goal. These are schools recognized as Catholic by their local bishops or independent schools teaching the Catholic Faith. A blessing for such schools has been the formation of NAPCIS (National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools), established in 1995. Membership has grown from the original four schools to over eighty. Of course, there are also a number of other independent schools that are not NAPCIS members. Schools such as Holy Angels have met high standards regarding Catholic identity and academic excellence required for NAPCIS accreditation.
Another bright light is the Cardinal Newman Society founded in 1993, with a mission “to promote and defend faithful Catholic education.” President and Founder Patrick Reilly has guided CNS in promoting and honoring authentic Catholic colleges and universities. This has been a valuable source for parents considering college for their children. In recent years, CNS has begun honoring secondary schools as well. Holy Angels Academy and other independent schools are seriously involved in this effort.
As for the future of Holy Angels Academy, Joe Norton’s successor, Michael Swearingen, is very optimistic. He stresses that “The support of our families, families willing to sacrifice for our school and for solid Catholic education, is a true blessing for our school community and ensures the future of Holy Angels Academy is bright.” Swearingen emphasizes the vital need for the support of parents who see the big picture and do not just come and go if certain things are not quite to their liking.
He points to the example of Mike and Mary Kenney, whose ten children all graduated from Holy Angels and continue to practice their faith as young adults. Mary continues to volunteer while her grandchildren now attend. When asked why she and her husband have been so loyal to Holy Angels, Mary says, “I know that it is the primary role as parents to teach our children the faith. I always said it is far more important to get them to Heaven than to Harvard! We all have to help and not just expect teachers and staff to carry the load.”
Addressing loyal parents, teachers, and benefactors at the academy’s annual benefit, Bishop Joseph Strickland said, “Holy Angels is about…passing on light and leaven, truth and joy, to the beautiful children and young people that are here.”
Yes, Holy Angels Academy and schools like her are shining the light on the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty in an authentically Catholic tradition. Indeed, it was at one of the first NAPCIS conferences that Bishop Carl Mengeling of the Diocese of Lansing emphatically told the attendees from independent schools:
“You are a gift to the Church!”

Info About Celebration

Along with her Golden Anniversary celebration, Holy Angels Academy is hosting a fifty-year celebration of independent, private, and Catholic schools to be held on June 13, 14, and 15. Details and reservation procedures can be found by contacting the school at or by calling 502-254-9439.
Those who wish to support Holy Angels Academy with present endeavors, please contact the same.

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