A few years ago, an elderly man visited St. Catherine’s Academy, the boys’ Catholic school with a military tradition located on Harbor Boulevard in the heart of Anaheim, just north of Lincoln Avenue, behind St. Boniface Catholic Church.
Sister Johnellen Turner, OP, administrator and principal of St. Catherine’s, walked out of her office.
“Welcome!” she said.
The man turned away from her, saying nothing.
Uh oh, Sister Johnellen thought. This must have been a bad experience for him.
She welcomed him again.
The man, emotional, finally opened up.
“I graduated from here 80 years ago,” he told her. “I’m 94 years old, and I had to come back home one more time.”
Sister Johnellen asked the man if he had a good experience at St. Catherine’s Academy, which celebrates its 130th birthday March 16, with festivities including a Mass to be celebrated by Bishop Vann in the school chapel.
“This was the best part of my life,” the man told her. “Nothing in my whole life formed me even better.”
“Do you talk about it?” Sister Johnellen asked.
“All the time!” the man said.
Founded in 1889 by Mother Pia Backes of the Dominican Sisters of San Jose Mission, the educational program at St. Catherine’s Academy is rooted in the Dominican charism. It emphasizes faith, leadership, academics, and service with a philosophy centered on the four pillars of community, ministry, study, and prayer.
Alumni frequently return to the school.
Jordan Garrity, 20, stopped by recently to observe a PE session. Garrity, who was in the area, attended seventh- and eighth-grade at St. Catherine’s. He graduated in 2013.
“A big thing for me was, the academics here were awesome,” said Garrity, who now works for UPS. “I struggled (at other schools), and the sisters, teachers, and staff took time to help me out. The military tradition helped build character, and helped me focus a lot better.”
Unique for a Catholic school, 60 of St. Catherine’s Academy’s current enrollment of 160 students live in one of the school’s four dorms.
Residency is not mandatory, and is available for fourth-graders on at the school, which serves boys in transitional kindergarten through the eighth grade.
The school originally was an academy for girls, and then an orphanage. It became a military school in the 1920s. Beginning in the third grade, boys at St. Catherine’s Academy are introduced to the military tradition of structure and discipline.
“We teach to the boy’s brain,” Sister Johnellen said. “Boys’ and girls’ brains are built differently by the Lord.”
Added Sister Johnellen, who has been principal of four other Catholic schools and has been at St. Catherine’s Academy since 2007: “When boys and girls are in the same classroom, some boys may be lost or distracted because they don’t work the same way as girls. They need more direction.”
Sister Johnellen is part of an 800-year-old order founded by St. Dominic that worldwide now includes 176,000 Dominican brothers, sisters and lay leaders, friars, and nuns serving in 116 countries.
St. Catherine’s Academy reflects that international flair, with students from several countries, including China, Mexico, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Africa, Russia, and Canada.
More than 460 sisters have served at St. Catherine’s Academy, which five years ago launched a program that provides boys that can’t afford to come to St. Catherine’s with full tuition. There currently are 16 students who are beneficiaries of the program, which is paid for by outside sources.
The boys at St. Catherine’s are taught to always be respectful and polite.
Sister Johnellen recalled bringing three eighth-graders to a presentation at the local Rotary Club a few years ago.
The boys wanted the adults to eat first, and served themselves only after being reminded they were guests. They took small portions, and when they prayed aloud in unison before eating, the room fell silent.
“Sister,” one of them whispered, “did we do something wrong?”
“Not on your life,” Sister Johnellen replied.
One of the students told the crowd that when he came to St. Catherine’s, his life changed overnight.
Sister Johnellen, dressed in a full habit, thought, uh-oh.
“It’s sounded like we beat them at St. Catherine’s,” she said with a laugh.
The boy elaborated.
“When I came to St. Catherine’s,” he said, “all the boys were going in the same direction, and I wanted to be with them. So I changed. Here, you want to be together. And what they offer you is the right thing for you. And so you work as a team, you work as a group.”
Sister Johnellen, sitting in the school’s parlor, whose walls are festooned with dozens of crucifixes from around the world, beamed.
“That’s probably the one of the greatest definition that I’ve heard of our school,” she said.
Added Sister Johnellen: “God continues to bless us with wonderful young men and we continue to do our best to, as St. Catherine of Siena put it, ‘be who God meant them to be….and they will set the world on fire.’”