Fr. Javier Bustos-Lopez, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, engages with students around the altar during an all-school Mass.
At Seton Catholic Schools, helping to guide students into good high schools and colleges is a top priority. But, it still takes a backseat to Seton’s biggest goal of all: helping to guide students to Heaven.
As much as academic excellence is important, the real cornerstone of Seton’s mission is its Catholic identity. “When we’re talking about our Catholic identity,” said Fr. Javier Bustos, “we’re talking about the soul of who we are.”
Fr. Bustos sits on the board of directors for Seton Catholic Schools, and is also the pastor at a Seton school, Our Lady Queen of Peace in Milwaukee.
“Our percentage of students and families in the school that come to Sunday Mass is very high, and I’m very thankful for that,” said Fr. Javier. “That means they understand we don’t only want the students to be smart and successful in academics, but even better, we want them to be holy and we want them to understand the source of wisdom, who is God.”
At Our Lady Queen of Peace, as at other Seton schools, this goal is accomplished in a number of ways. Janet Orlowski, principal at Our Lady Queen of Peace, said that one of the biggest ways that Catholic identity and teaching is promoted is through the presence and spiritual fatherhood of Fr. Javier himself.
“Fr. Javier takes a personal interest in the families of the school,” she said, explaining that pre-pandemic, Fr. Javier scheduled home visits with school families to get to know them better and was a regular presence on the school playground and in the cafeteria. He took an active role in many school activities, including the annual small group retreats for grades five through eight.
“What we’re trying to do, through the retreats and other faith-based events’ is basically collaborate with mom and dad in providing the opportunity for these kids to develop the values and the faith they have received in baptism,” said Fr. Javier. “At the retreat, we have very deep reflections. The kids feel free to talk. They talk about very deep topics, like reconciliation, like racism, like immigration issues. They talk about what hurts. After the retreat, when we come back to our parish and they look at me, they know that I know what’s going on in their hearts, because I’ve listened to them already.”
Many of those pastoral gestures have pivoted to a virtual platform during the pandemic, but Fr. Javier still finds ways to connect personally with the families of his school. He records weekly videos covering different religious topics that are shared in the classroom for in-person students and via Zoom for virtual students. Mass is also streamed into the classrooms and to the students at home. “Since we needed to limit visitors to the classroom for the sake of limiting exposure, this was a way for Fr. Javier and other pastors to remain involved and present with students,” said Orlowski.
“In each video I give them homework. I love it, because some students come to Mass on Sunday, and say, ‘Father, I saw you on Friday and I got the answer, can you listen to me?’ And she gave me the answer to the question I asked in the video,” said Fr. Javier . “I love that.”
This year, about 40 graduates of Our Lady Queen of Peace were confirmed, said Orlowski — a testament to the impact of the school’s Catholic identity.
To effectively minister to the souls of the school children, Seton schools like Our Lady Queen of Peace see themselves as partners with the parents and families in helping the students to know, love and serve God.
“Important to our Catholic identity is our care for those in need,” said Fr. Javier. “Our school was able to give food during the beginning of the pandemic to thousands of people, not only to students and their parents, but anybody in their neighborhood. We had long lines of people coming to get lunch.” Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish also established a charitable foundation that assists low-income families with emergency expenses, in some cases paying for the funerals of family members who died from COVID-19.
The student population of Our Lady Queen of Peace is largely made up of Hispanic Catholics, said Fr. Javier, which makes the promotion of Catholic teaching and identity very natural. But, even in the Seton schools where there is a larger population of non-Catholic families, he added, Catholic identity is still critical to the curriculum.
“We do have some Seton schools who are majority non-Catholic,” he said. “But when parents register their kids, they are told and they know: you are registering your children to a Catholic school, and what it means is that they will be provided with Catholic teaching.” This has actually been a boon to enrollment, and not a deterrent, Fr. Javier said. “Most parents understand the value of Catholic teaching even if they belong to a different denomination. They understand that it is something that is very important.”
When parents are deciding on a school for their child, said Fr. Javier, two issues are usually at the top of their minds: safety and academic excellence. “They want that for sure, and they know that in Catholic schools, we do very well with those two,” he said. But at Seton schools, there is a third and more important prong of the mission.
“It is central that parents understand they’re not just sending their kids to school, but they’re sending their kids to a Catholic school,” said Fr. Javier. “They are not only going to receive science and math, but they are going to receive the gift of faith, the opportunity to grow in faith.