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VOL. 42 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 5, 2018

St. Cecilia, Nashville's oldest private school, tackles today’s issues

By Linda Bryant

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Sister Anna Laura encourages a group of young girls during a visitors welcome day at St. Cecilia Academy.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Nashville’s St. Cecilia Academy is the only same-sex private girls school in Nashville that offers an education rooted in Roman Catholic Christianity.

“St. Cecilia Academy offers an authentically Catholic response to the questions of our times: what is the human person, what is true freedom, what are we made for?” Sister Anna Laura, principal of the school of almost 300 young women grades 9-12, says of the 158-year-old school, which is owned and operated by the Dominican Sisters of the St. Cecilia Congregation in the Diocese of Nashville.

The founding of the school was simultaneous with the founding of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in 1860. During its early years, St. Cecilia Academy was a boarding school on a hill in North Nashville known as Mount Vernon Gardens.

Surviving the early tests of the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction, the Great Depression and two World Wars, St. Cecilia stands today as the oldest continually operating private school in Davidson County.

The Ledger asked Sister Anna Laura to talk with us about the school’s unique footprint in Nashville.

We also asked her how an all-girls Catholic School deals with issues such as sexual harassment and abuse and the current #MeToo movement.

What kinds of things does St. Cecilia Academy do to strengthen and sustain a young woman’s self-esteem, especially when it comes to gender-specific boundaries and behaviors?

Sister Anna Laura interacts with St. Cecilia Academy students before their first class of the day.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“At the heart of our curriculum at St. Cecilia Academy has always been the dignity of the human person, created in God’s image and destined to share in his own divine life for all eternity. The all-girls environment offers a unique space for these young women to examine popularly accepted views of self-worth in light of the truth of who they are.

“For example, the value of women is often reduced in our society to a few traits such as physical beauty, and women then can adopt behaviors that are unhealthy in order to gain validation based upon a limited understanding of femininity and the dignity of the human person.

“We offer a counter-cultural message and the space to grapple with the chasm posed between these contrary views of self-worth and self-esteem. This analysis allows the girls to attain a deep inner strength: the world does not define them from the outside, rather the truth defines them from within.

“St. Cecilia girls are marked by this confidence. Knowing that they are uniquely and individually desired, created, and chosen by God, gives them an unshakeable strength.”

Have you seen a rise in interest in St. Cecilia in recent years? Is enrollment growing?

“The sacrifice in time and resources required by families to afford private education continues to be a struggle for many families. It continues, however, to be a choice made by many families because of the inestimable value of a solid education rooted firmly in the Catholic tradition.

“This year, we welcomed our largest freshman class in three years. I think we are growing because we offer an organic whole that flows from the person of Jesus Christ and radiates into every class, hallway and extra-curricular activity. The results are undeniable and families with no faith background often remark that they chose St. Cecilia because they walked in the door and their daughter felt free to be herself.

“What they are sensing is the fruit of a school community confident in our mission in preparing these girls to be the strong women that the world needs now more than ever.”

Can you say more about how values, morals and ethics are taught at St. Cecilia?

“Acknowledging the harmony of faith and reason, we strive to integrate our Catholic faith into all that we do. St. Cecilia Academy offers an authentically Catholic response to the questions of our times: what is the human person, what is true freedom, what are we made for? We know that such answers come not from religion class alone, but from every academic discipline, leadership and club opportunity, and perhaps most importantly, the witness of faith as seen in our faculty and staff.”

Do you think that your graduates are well-equipped to face the wider world where sexual harassment and abuse are still major problems?

“When we treat others in a way that offends their dignity, or when we allow ourselves to be treated in a way that is beneath our dignity, we are subconsciously reflecting an impoverished view of the human person.

“At St. Cecilia, we believe that we offer the girls a unique and increasingly rare opportunity to encounter the truth about themselves, fully revealed through friendship with God. If a relationship with God is accepted and nurtured, it will change the way that we treat others and the way that we expect to be treated.”

“Often we find this friendship with Jesus to be something mysterious. It is therefore helpful to provide opportunities for growth in the faith not only through a rich sacramental life but also through the testimonies and leadership of women that are living lives of faith.

“Over the past several years, we have made a concerted effort to bring in strong female speakers that reach a variety of our students. Speakers include Jackie Francois, Leah Darrow, Audrey Assad, Emily Wilson and many others.

“These are women of great faith who are fully engaged in discerning how to best offer their talents to the world. And, in this process, they have had to confront the tensions and lies of a culture that tries to reduce their feminine gifts to something less than God’s plan.”

Do St. Cecilia teachers incorporate themes of dealing with female-specific issues in curricula or special events? For example, does a PE teacher address self-defense? Does a business class teach what to do when it comes to on-the-job sexual harassment?

“The all-girls environment naturally lends itself to a curriculum where sensitive topics can be addressed in their proper discipline. From biology and psychology to literature and religion, the all-girls environment allows teachers to broach sensitive and delicate subjects in a way that is organic to the curriculum, and yet, specific to the questions of girls in 2018.”

“Over the past decade, we also have developed the Women’s Leadership Forum, which features guest speakers who address specific issues including self-defense and internet safety. Each year SCA girls apply to attend the UN conference on the status of women in New York City. This helps the girls apply at the global level what they’ve learned in the classroom about the nature of human rights as rooted in human dignity. They confront many opposing views of the human person and human freedom, and they wrestle with the sensitive nature of the questions posed by various countries and NGO’s. (non-governmental organizations)”

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