This Is What We Do

This Is What We Do March 31, 2014

A few years ago, Chrysler debuted a slick commercial called “Imported from Detroit,” featuring Eminem cruising past relics of the city’s past industrial and civic glory. The voice-over, backed by the thumping guitar riff of “Lose Yourself,” praises Detroit’s gritty resilience and the unexpected luxury of Chryslers rolling out of its factories. Eminem stops his car under the marquee of a theater. He strides down its aisle toward a robed choir, turning to the close-up camera on stage with the tagline, “This is the Motor City… and this is what we do.”

An online parody of the ad made in Hyattsville, Maryland—a slightly rough-around-the-edges former streetcar suburb across Washington, D.C.’s northeast border—follows a nine-year old boy winding through town on his skateboard, skirting railroad tracks and shabby storefronts, towards the neighborhood Catholic school. Over a shot of a bulletin board that reads, “THE GOOD, THE BEAUTIFUL, THE TRUE,” the narrator asks what a place like this knows about “building a culture based on truth and love.” The boy flips his board at the school steps, where the choir of boys in collared shirts and girls in plaid jumpers waits. With fourth-grade swagger, he points to the camera and proclaims, “This is St. Jerome Academy… et hoc facimus” [and this is what we do].

The contrast could not be more telling. The redemption of De- troit, as told in the Gospel according to Chrysler, will come from a sexier automobile. But the redemption of Hyattsville will spring from something far different.

Chris Currie is the father of the boy in the St. Jerome video. He first came to Washington—imported from his Detroit hometown—to attend Georgetown University. After graduation, Currie spent a year con- sidering becoming a priest before returning to Wash- ington to work for a non-profit. He met his wife, Su- sie, a travel journalist for a regional magazine. In 1997, they were a newlywed couple looking for a place to settle down. While Susie was on assignment on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a chance conversation with an innkeep- er persuaded the couple to look at Hyattsville’s historic district. Susie had gone to college nearby and only knew the town as a corridor of junky car dealerships, blight- ed by decades of disinvestment and economic interests that prospered from the status quo. “Hyattsville was definitely a little long in the tooth,” Chris says, “But I loved everything about it.”

The Curries bought a house a few blocks from St. Jerome Church and began to raise a family. Hyattsville was still one of the region’s few relatively affordable places for young professionals and families, who were beginning to ditch long Beltway commutes for life in neighborhoods closer to the urban core. It was well connected to D.C., and the historic district was full of charming Craftsman style homes and Victorian fixer-uppers. It had a sustainable diversity of race and class, not the transitional diversity of trendy, quickly gentrifying neighborhoods. In St. Jerome Parish, Currie saw potential for a community like one he had known and lost in his Detroit childhood, before the city be- came ripe for urban dystopian mockery. Back then, he remembers, life in his predominantly Polish-American neighborhood was anchored by Transfiguration Parish: “Everything happened there—not just the schooling and worship, but all the fraternal organizations, the dances and the festivals, the weddings and the funerals. Everybody in the neighborhood was Catholic, and every- body walked to church. There was still a sense of people living together, not sequestered in their own homes.”

When Currie was ten, his family moved to the dis- tant Farmington Hills suburb. The nearest parish was a spartan church six miles away that Currie now de- scribes as “a sacramental dispensary.”

“Always I felt this sense of loss, having gone from this urban parish to the suburban model. We didn’t share that faith connection with our neighbors, and we had to drive to most everything. At that age, I couldn’t articulate much about it. Nevertheless, I was very conscious that this wasn’t everything that a parish or a community could be,” he says. That early awareness of a relationship between faith and place would later spark an interesting in building an intentional community of Catholic families within Hyattsville.

The town was small and neglected enough to see significant change spring from modest efforts. Currie joined a civic improvement group and began to think about ways the town might restore its urban form to appeal to new families. In 1999, he was elected to the first of two four-year terms on city council. With sup- port from the mayor and other young council col- leagues, he challenged the town to find tenants for vacant buildings and to redevelop the dealerships on the main street into a mixed-use project. The council designated a 25- acre section along the avenue as “The Hyattsville Arts District,” an ongoing development that brought a grocery store, restau- rants, retail, and several hundred townhouses and apartment units to the neighborhood. The new tax base from these ventures helped to fund the repair and widening of sidewalks and to build new ones on unwalkable streets. “It’s now a more attractive place to sell to that community that we’re trying to create here,” Currie says.

Hyattsville’s nascent urban revival began to draw energetic, growing families—many with ties to the nearby Catholic University of America and other Church institutions—seeking a traditional neighborhood with a vibrant parish. Currie’s knowledge of the local mar- ket helped him to make connections between interested families and homeowners willing to sell. Over the years, he has played middleman for several dozen sales and rentals, though he is not a licensed real estate agent and has never taken a commission.

When the rundown bungalow across the street from the Curries’ home became a haven for drug users, Chris and Susie bought the house and spent a year renovating it before reselling. “It wasn’t to make a profit, just to pre- vent a growing problem from getting worse. We definitely lost money on it, but,” Currie adds cheerfully, “We got a great new Catholic family into the neighborhood.” There are now unofficially about a hundred young, well-educated, and orthodox families in Hyattsville’s intentional community. “It’s a community without any kind of articles of incorporation or authority structure outside of the parish,” Currie says, “which is the basic unit of Catholic society.” In recent years, St. Jerome Parish has had significantly more baptisms than funerals, reversing a general trend of urban churches with dwindling numbers of mostly elderly parishioners. Several young parishioners have entered the seminary.

Not long ago—despite its growth and vitality—the community feared hearing its own untimely death knell. By 2009, enrollment at St. Jerome School had fallen from over 500 students seven years earlier to less than 300. The school was one of thirteen placed on an archdiocesan “consultation list” that threatened consolidation or closure. The community had seen other local parishes wither after their schools closed.

Michael Hanby, former Associate Director of Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning, had recently moved into the parish after becoming a professor at the nearby Pontifical John Paul II Institute. “St. Jerome’s model seemed to be that of a public school curriculum plus religion class,” he says. “There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the school, academically or religiously speaking, and not much to compel you to send your kids there.” Hanby sent an essay he had written on the philosophy of education to St. Jerome’s Principal Mary Pat Donoghue. “I told her that I would love for the school to survive, but that frankly, I wasn’t sure it was worth saving in its current state. I asked her if she would be willing to consider something a little bolder,” he says. Donoghue and St. Jerome’s Pastor, Father James Stack, were already thinking of re- forms for the school, and they invited Hanby to join the school’s curriculum committee.

“We weren’t exactly given a mandate,” Hanby says, “Nor did we really intend to create what was essentially a philosophy of education for a new school. We just set out to do what we thought was intrinsically good. We all believed that there is a great deal of contemporary confusion about what education is. We knew that we wanted children to read well, write well, speak well, and think well. We knew that we wanted them to ask and think about the great human questions. We were convinced that you can’t educate as if God doesn’t exist—or as if the Church weren’t integral to the meaning of humanity and the West—without falsifying history and cultivating illiteracy. We knew we wanted to make our children heirs to the great tradition of Christian humanism.”

The committee spent six months writing an ambitious blueprint for a K-8 curriculum inspired by the trivium—the foundation of classical education, familiar to the committee members who had studied Great Books curricula. It began with new standards to judge each lesson and activity, among these:

• Are we doing this because it is
inherently good, or as a means to an end?

• Is it beautiful?

• Does it encourage [the student] to desire truth, to understand such virtues as courage, modesty, prudence, and moderation, and to cultivate these within himself?

The integrated curriculum proposed a focus on the history of Western civilization, “…incorporating our students into the wisdom of two thousand years of Catholic thought, history, culture, and arts.” Each grade would emphasize a particular tradition within that history chronologically; kindergarten would be “The Cradle of Civilization Year,” leading to “The American Year” in fifth grade and cycling through that history again in the middle school years. Socratic dialogue and Latin grammar would be- gin in the early grades. Reading lists would draw heavily from mythology, philosophy, the lives of the saints, and literature from the ancient to the modern, avoiding textbooks. This classical approach wasn’t meant to be esoteric, but to present history “…rooted in an understanding of the human person… created in the image and likeness of God… as a coherent story propelled by the human desire for God and God’s coming to meet, in- flame, and satisfy that desire in Christ.”

Father Stack and Donoghue approved the plans for St. Jerome Academy without amendment, and Donoghue began to implement the curriculum. “A thousand things could have gone wrong to derail it,” Hanby says, “But none of them did.” Of the schools that were put on the consultation list more than four years ago, only St. Jerome Academy remains open. Some classes have waiting lists. Several new families have moved into Hyattsville to send their children to the academy. As the classical curriculum attracted interest in religious education circles nationwide, the academy began helping other schools to implement their own variations.

Though the academy looks to a tradition of Christian humanism that has often been in conflict with the priorities of a technology-obsessed modern world, the community has found an online presence essential to its growth and vigor. Highly active listservs for the neighborhood’s Catholic men and women are places for theological and political discussions, planning of social events and pick-up games, and prayer requests.

Currie says the fruits of this networking are a means to a greater end: “You’ve got to eventually go beyond this disembodied interaction and become more incarnational, because you’re not going to be able to do certain things if you’re just waving to your neighbor from the mailbox. You’re not going to get opportunities to be of Christian service. Even if you give money to charity or volunteer at a soup kitchen, it’s not the same as being involved with your neighbors all the time.”

The community’s power for such corporal works of mercy became tragically clear last August, when Peggy and Alan Burgoyne’s six-year-old son, Patrick, suffered a terrible accident at home. Parishioners kept vigil with the Burgoynes at Patrick’s hospital bedside and gathered at church to pray the rosary for the family. “The grace from those prayers has sustained us through many difficult days,” Peggy says. Patrick died five days after the accident. Neighbors pitched in to cover the staggering hospital bills from his care. A family friend took time off work to arrange flights for Alan’s family in Ireland to come for the funeral. Other parishioners hosted those seven relatives in their homes for two weeks and cooked meals for the entire family. They cleaned the Burgoynes’ house and did yard work so that they could hold Patrick’s wake at home. After requiem prayers outside the house the morning of the funeral, a crucifer and thurifers from the parish altar guild led the procession on foot three blocks to the church. Police stopped traffic as the procession made its way down Hyattsville’s streets. The pallbearers paused every so often to let other men carry Patrick’s casket for a while.

“My husband and I are private people,” Peggy says, “so it was difficult for us to feel as if we were on display. But walking as a congregation was both more intimate and more communal than strictly isolating the celebration of Patrick’s life inside the walls of our parish church. And yet, our destination was the church.”

The public solidarity of the parish makes it easy to forget that the intentional community has always been a minority in Hyattsville. The thought of forming remote Christian enclaves far from the scorn and rot of contemporary American society may be tempting, but Chris Currie doesn’t have much interest in that interpretation of what’s called the “Benedict Option.” “Christianity started as an urban religion—not that you can’t be Catholic and rural,” he says, “That’s always been the missionary dynamic of the Church.”

Currie believes that Hyattsville’s intentional community has chipped away at straw man caricatures of what it means to be Catholic: “I think it was probably a lot like that in ancient Rome, even when Christianity was overtly persecuted. Folks looked at their Christian neighbors and said, ‘This is attractive.’ And honestly, unless we form these communities, how are we going to evangelize society? It’s not going to be based on intellectual propositions abhorrent to most Americans today. They’ve got to experience people living a Catholic faith in their everyday life. Where better to do that than an urban community developed around the common life?”

There may not be many places today where that mission is possible, nor many that have consciously tried to build and grow with virtues of goodness, beauty, and truth in mind.

But this is Hyattsville… et hoc faciunt.

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