Before joining the Dominican Order, Br. Joe Trout, O.P. spent a year and a half teaching middle school math in rural Indiana. Several of his students had special needs and others came from very difficult socioeconomic backgrounds. Some had parents in jail. Often his biggest challenge was convincing 7th and 8th graders that math mattered in their lives.
In many public schools, teachers aren’t allowed to bring up religion. But if students ask any questions, teachers are free to answer. When Br. Trout left a rosary or a bible out on his desk, questions would often arise and conversations would follow.
Fast forward to this fall. Now solemnly professed in the Order of Preachers, Br. Trout is teaching freshman and sophomore Theology at Fenwick High School (Oak Park, IL), one of the most prestigious Catholic college prep schools in the country. He reads a Scripture passage from the Book of Genesis, chapter four. Within minutes, more than half of his students eagerly raise their hands. One student connects the reading to a discussion of John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. The book is barely visible on Br. Trout’s desk.
Students attend Fenwick for an excellent education, a safe environment and a warm community. But even Br. Trout admits many of them are not interested in faith, whatsoever. In one of his classes, at least a third of the students aren’t Catholic and a good number aren’t Christian. Some are agnostic or atheist, and others are actively questioning what they should believe. But they aren’t being graded on their faith. Rather, students are graded on their ability to discuss faith, speak intelligently about what they believe, and have a conversation with someone else rather than simply being reactive—and the non-Catholic students challenge both their teacher and fellow students.
“You can’t take the approach you can in other subjects where you say we all believe this matters. We can’t begin on that assumption,” Br. Trout said.
Theology is a required course at Fenwick, like math was in his previous teaching role. While his current students are highly motivated by good grades, Br. Trout is still working to help students see why the classroom content matters outside Fenwick’s stone walls.
“No matter where you stand on these topics, these are some of the most important questions you’ll ask in your life,” Br. Trout said. “Is there something out there? Is there life after death? Is there something you can have a relationship with? What is the point of life?”
“The students are more interested, in some ways, than I was expecting,” Br. Trout said. “They have big questions and they are very honest about them.”
“Having students who are wondering and asking questions adds something enjoyable to my classroom,” Br. Trout added. “Sometimes the students with less religious backgrounds have more probing questions because it’s new to them. It adds something dynamic to the room. The Catholic students can’t give as simple of answers all the time because they’re aware that other people in the room don’t agree with them. You can’t just say, I believe this so that’s the way it is.”
Students in 9th and 10th grade seem more open and curious about their place in the world. They care about their faith and they want to know more. At Fenwick, students are challenged to intellectually engage their faith in the true spirit of the Dominican Order, as friars dressed in the traditional white habit provide a visible witness to religious life in the hallways and beyond.
“We have a whole different experience of the world that filters into everything we do,” Br. Trout said. “A number of us teach Theology, but some are teaching in different settings. Seeing us in different lights gives students a glimpse into the breadth of what it means to be a religious in the Church or a Christian, in a sense.”
Also on staff in Fenwick’s Theology department, Fr. Doug Greer, O.P. and Fr. Nick Monco, O.P. represent the crop of recently ordained friars. But, Dominicans do much more than teach Theology. The school’s president is Fr. Rick Peddicord, O.P., who taught Br. Trout while he was in graduate studies at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. In Institutional Advancement, Fr. Richard LaPata, O.P. has served Fenwick for years. Brother Paul Byrd, O.P. teaches English and Fr. Mike Winkels, O.P. teaches Art, and is the school’s Technology Director, as well as assistant hockey coach. Central Province Vocations Director, Fr. Andy McAlpin, O.P. coaches baseball, and Fenwick Campus Ministry Director, Fr. Dennis Woerter, O.P., also coaches soccer. In total, there are nine Dominican Friars having an impact at Fenwick, making it likely one of the largest religious faculty and staff of any Catholic secondary school in the country.
To learn more about Fenwick High School, visit www.FenwickFriars.org