Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was part of a record crowd of about 900 people entertained by comedian Charlie Berens at the Catholic Schools Dinner on March 7. The event and related donations raised about $200,000 for GIFTS (Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students) grants to be awarded this spring to area Catholic schools. (Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Milwaukee Office for Development)

Comedian Charlie Berens has built his career on his keen sense of observation — of both his life experiences and his fellow Wisconsinites.

Looking out at a record-breaking crowd at the annual Catholic Schools Dinner on Tuesday, March 7, Berens remarked, “This is the most Catholics I’ve ever seen in the front row.”

Berens, who attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school, was the featured entertainment as the event drew about 900 people, an increase of 300 more than the previous year. The night had a colorful, festive feel as many attendees wore school spirit wear from their alma maters or where their children attend school now.

Berens, decked out in his typical Midwestern garb, said he decided to pass on wearing a blue polo that would have reminded him of his time at St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove, where he spent a lot of time in the office of the principal — Sr. Betty.

Following Berens’ 40-minute set, which covered topics such as his unique accent, the Green Bay Packers’ rivals, the drawn-out “Midwest goodbye,” and being one of 12 children, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki joked, “Charlie Berens educated me on parts of Scripture I didn’t know about.”

Proceeds from the Catholic Schools Dinner go to support the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s GIFTS (Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students) grants to schools. Paige Rohr, the Associate Director of Catholic Schools Development, estimates the archdiocese will be able to distribute about $200,000 this spring in GIFTS grants.

“I’m blessed to lead such a vibrant archdiocese that values Catholic education in that special way,” Archbishop Listecki said. “It is true what is said: We are looked upon by the rest of the Catholic communities of the United States. Dioceses and archdioceses that make up the U.S. look to Milwaukee for its leadership in Catholic education, as well they should.”

He said the schools in the archdiocese share three major characteristics: collaboration, growth and success.

Collaborations he noted include the schools in Fond du Lac who formed St. Mary’s Springs Academy, a K-12 school, along with Seton Catholic Schools and Messmer Schools in Milwaukee, the schools in Kenosha County, and Siena Catholic Schools of Racine.

“With these models, people are paying attention to what we are doing here, nationally,” Archbishop Listecki said.

In the past 10 years, three high schools — Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Chesterton Academy and St. Anthony — have opened in the archdiocese, and the Notre Dame School of Milwaukee expanded to offer K-8 education in 2015.

“Our Catholic schools are growing,” Archbishop Listecki said. “That contradicts what’s happening in Catholic education in the United States.”

Independent studies have shown that Catholic school children are 18 months ahead of their public-school counterparts in learning.

“I’ve said this before: I’m not up here to promote or support private education,” Archbishop Listecki said. “I hope they do a fine job. I hope some of those private institutions really do well. I’m here because I’m committed and dedicated to Catholic education. Catholic education makes a difference.”

He said those seeds will bear fruit later in those students’ lives.

“The real reason we exist is the forming of disciples,” the archbishop continued. “There’s no report card for this, but it’s so critical in our world that’s increasingly secular, that there are those individuals who understand that the presence of God in their lives and dedicate themselves to that dignity that recognizes God involved with their brothers and sisters.”

Archbishop Listecki noted that some of the growth in Catholic schools was a result of the Faith in Our Future Campaign and will be supplemented by the current Love One Another Campaign.

“Catholic education is a fundamental ministry, and as Catholic education grows, it is strengthened and it helps build our Church.”