Multi-Cultural Diocesan Schools Attract Students of All Faiths

Jessica Singh (left) said she has never regretted sending her children to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy. She credited Principal Frances DeLuca (right) with fostering an inclusive atmosphere in the school that made her daughter Maya and other non-Catholic students feel comfortable. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

Catholic teaching unites children of all religions

SOUTH OZONE PARK — Maya Singh, an eighth-grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy in Queens, said she has enjoyed every minute of her time in the school, where she feels right at home and has made many friends with whom she has a lot in common.

But one thing that Maya does not have in common with many of her classmates is religion. Unlike them, Maya is not Catholic. She is Hindu. Even so, she says, she has never felt out of place. 

“I’ve never been made to feel like I’m different. They’re so kind to everyone. Everyone is treated equally,” said Maya, who has attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help since pre-kindergarten and is preparing to get ready for her graduation in June. She will attend Archbishop Molloy High School in September.

Maya is part of a trend in the Diocese of Brooklyn — non-Catholics attending Catholic schools.

Approximately 70% of students in the diocese’s schools and academies come from Catholic families — meaning that about 30% are non-Catholic, according to the Office of the School Superintendent.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Principal Frances DeLuca said approximately 20% of her school’s 375 students are non-Catholic. “The other faith that’s prevalent in our school is Hinduism,” she explained.

One does not have to be Catholic to attend a Catholic school in the diocese.

“They don’t have to be Catholic as long as they buy what we’re selling — rigorous academics, a love of God and respect for all, and strong discipline,” said Deacon Kevin McCormack, the incoming superintendent of schools.

And while Catholic schools don’t proselytize, they do require all students to take part in religion classes. There are no special carve-outs for non-Catholics.

“We don’t advocate that anyone convert,” DeLuca said. “We really just allow ourselves to be who we are. And that’s people of faith — Christians who show our love of Jesus Christ.”

But if non-Catholic students are enriched by the Catholic school experience, so too are children who are brought up in the faith, DeLuca said. 

A diverse student body gives children a chance to learn about other cultures, she added. For example, Our Lady of Perpetual Help celebrates Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, each year.

“Our Catholic children benefit from having classmates who are different from them,” she explained. “Jesus taught us to love one another, despite our differences. Our children live that every day in class.”

At Xaverian high school in Bay Ridge, where Deacon McCormack served as principal for 15 years, 20% of the students are non-Catholics. He estimated that half of those non-Catholics are students from other Christian denominations. The other half, he said, are non-Christians. “We’ve even had a couple of Jewish kids from time to time,” he added.

That 20% figure is on par with national numbers. According to the National Catholic Education Association, 20.3% of students attending Catholic schools in the 2021-2022 academic year in the U.S. are not Catholic.

Non-Catholics choose to enroll their children in Catholic schools for a variety of reasons, primarily the family-friendly atmosphere the schools provide, strong academics, and dissatisfaction with the city’s public school system, educators said.

Some parents expressed concern about safety in public schools — a problem that is highlighted by the number of weapons students are bringing into schools. According to the NYPD statistics, more than 4,700 weapons, including 1,100 knives and 16 guns, have been recovered in public schools since September 2021.

Public school enrollment has declined nearly 2% since last year, according to the Department of Education. At the same time, the enrollment at Catholic schools in the diocese has jumped 2.4% since 2021.

Mary Ann Spicijaric, principal of Fontbonne Hall, The Lab School for Girls in Bay Ridge, said her school welcomes students who are Muslim, Greek-Orthodox, and Protestant. 

Their parents usually offer two reasons for wanting to send their daughters there.

“Their main reasons are our high academic standards and the idea of having their daughters in a space where they are encouraged to become leaders,” said Spicijaric, who estimated that the non-Catholic population is 10%.

Many parents like the transparency schools like Our Lady of Perpetual Help display, DeLuca said. “Parents can look at our website and see test scores that are posted. They see how my teachers communicate with the parents because we put a lot online,” she explained. 

“They’re looking for a school that’s safe and really fosters the development of the whole child,” she added.

DeLuca, who has been principal for 24 years, said religious diversity is nothing new at her school. Some of her current non-Catholic students are the children of former students or have older siblings who went there. For example, Maya is part of a long line of people in her family to attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Sometimes, it’s word-of-mouth that attracts non-Catholic parents. Jessica Singh, Maya’s mother, said relatives’ positive experiences at the school convinced her. 

“My husband’s nephews went there,” she said. “They would come by our house with their homework and talk about their school. I was fascinated. And I said, ‘I’ll give it a chance.’ It’s an exceptional school.” 

She has never regretted it. 

“We’re not Catholic,” she added. “But we all believe in one God.”