Catholic Schools Week

Faith, service on display at Irving school

Top row, left to right: Father Justin McNamara, Father Thomas Esposito, Father Ambrose Strong, Father Anthony Bigney, Father Ignatius Preacher, Father Joseph Van House, Father Augustine Hoelke and Father Lawrence Brophy, bottom row, left to right: Father Mark Ripperger, Father Philip Neri Lastimosa, Brother Raphael Schaner, Father Stephen Gregg, Father Gregory Schweers, Father Bernard Marton and Father Paul McCormick all serve as teachers at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving. (JENNA TETER/The Texas Catholic)

By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic

Teaching has always been more than a job for the monks at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving; it has been a critical part of their vocation as priests.

Since its founding in 1962, Cistercian has seen no shortage of its own monks educating students in a wide array of subjects ranging from theology to computer science. When the all-boys school was established, six monks, all of whom had recently fled communist Hungary and sought refuge in the United States, took on the role of teaching the school’s inaugural fourth and fifth-grade classes. Today, 16 of the 25 monks at Cistercian Abbey take on an active, full-time role at the school as either faculty or administrators.

“We come to know ourselves in working with the kids,” said Abbot Peter Verhalen, himself a 1973 graduate of the school who was ordained as a Cistercian monk in 1981. “We hope that they realize that all of their learning must be at the service of other people.”

That idea is woven into the school’s form master model, where each grade is assigned a priest, or form master, who, in addition to his role as their teacher, serves as an academic and spiritual mentor for the class from the time they arrive at Cistercian as fifth-graders until they graduate as high school seniors. It’s a model that has heavily influenced the lives of Cistercian’s students, including alumni Andres A. Ruzo, whose form master was current Cistercian headmaster Father Paul McCormick.

“Father Paul was a person who I felt always sincerely cared and was sincerely looking out for us,” said Ruzo, a 2005 graduate who is now a geophysicist and works for National Geographic. “If it wasn’t for Father Paul, I certainly would not have been successful at Cistercian. He has been one of the greatest single influences of my life.”
Father McCormick, who has known the Ruzo family since Andres was 10, said the relationships that develop between form masters and their students often resemble that of a family.

“Andres came to my ordination in 1996,” Father McCormick said. “He’s seen me grow in my priesthood, in my teaching ability and my monastic life. (The students) give me some of the gray hairs I have too.”

Those gray hairs are often born in the classroom, where the monks not only challenge the limits of their students’ academic potential, but also push them into the depths of the spiritual life.

Helping the students integrate both is the goal.

“I remember very distinctly I was a sophomore in high school and Father Denis (Farkasfalvy) was teaching Algebra 2,” Abbott Verhalen said. “I don’t think he ever mentioned the word God, yet he was fully a priest and had dedicated his life to monastic life and doing math really well at a really high level. That’s our Catholic culture. You’re striving to, at the appropriate age level, teach the boys that you can be really devout followers of Christ and fully develop their intellect.”

It’s a vocation Father McCormick said he wouldn’t trade for the world.

“Aside from being a doctor maybe, I can’t think of a life that could be more gratifying.”