“You learn through immersion. Like going to another country to learn a language, being fully immersed you learn so, so much,” said Katie Curry, one of the first Fellows accepted into the Aquinas Fellowship Program (AFP).
Bishop Frank J. Caggiano had launched the Aquinas Fellowship Program in November of 2018 with a challenge: “Are you ready to take up the Lord’s call to be a missionary disciple by serving as a Catholic educator? If you are, then the Aquinas Fellowship Program is waiting for you.”
AFP is designed to form spiritually strong educators who are committed to Catholic education. The Fellows work towards a cost-free master’s degree at Fairfield University while teaching full-time in a diocesan school. They receive an annual living allowance of $15,000 and are given encouragement and spiritual support as they balance life, college and teaching.
The program took active life on August 15, 2019, when the first three Fellows, Katie Curry, Nicole Rabito and Tiffany Tubby, entered the doors of St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield to begin the new school year.
“We couldn’t be happier,” said Pam Fallon, director of education at St. Joseph’s. “They are Fellows and therefore academically excellent, but more than that, they’re awesome disciples to these students. They are witnesses to their faith.”
Each participant accepted into AFP lives in community with other Fellows. These first three live in the former convent on the grounds of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Danbury. Participants commit to a minimum of four years—two years as a Fellow as they live in community and complete their degree and two as a paid employee of the diocese thereafter.
This demanding schedule is assisted by the support given by the AFP’s structure. “The balance of school and teaching can be overwhelming,” noted Curry, who is teaching social studies and English language arts at St. Joseph’s. “If I were alone, I don’t think I could handle the stress. It’s great having one another. Being able to come home when I’m stressed out and there’s someone else who is going through the same thing—we can talk to one another.”
The program also provides mentors and spiritual support. Program Coordinator Danielle Cheeseman sees the Fellows every other week. “She always brings us a home-cooked meal,” Curry said.
Father Michael Dunn, pastor of St. Gregory’s, is their spiritual advisor and is always on hand for community dinners, and their house has a chapel that they use regularly for prayer and relaxation and sharing.
The three Fellows came to the program from very different paths.
Katie Curry is originally from Long Island. She graduated from Fairfield University with a bachelor’s in communication and had an internship in social media. She has always been active in campus ministry; at Fairfield, she was co-leader of Campus Ministry, head of Lectors, and co-president of Students for Life. As part of her service she ran a drama club for middle schoolers and realized that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I love that age group,” she says of her middle school students. “I think they’re hilarious.” She remembers being that age all too well “It’s hard being 12 or 13. You don’t like yourself at that age. I want them to know that I care about them as persons. It’s hard for kids to see young people who are excited about your faith. I’m close in age to them. I’m able to play off that.”
Tiffany Tubby, also from Long Island, graduated from Queens College, N.Y., in 2010 with a dual major in media studies/sociology. Sharing her gift of media and art, she has worked in after school and summer programs, art therapy, assistant teaching, mentoring and facilitating anti-bullying workshops. For the last year and a half, she lived in Dorchester, Ma., serving at Project Hope, a Catholic organization that assists immigrants and underserved women and children.
“I am beyond grateful for this opportunity,” said Tubby, who teaches art and is an assistant counselor not only at St. Joseph’s but at St. Gregory the Great School and Immaculate High School, both in Danbury. She is currently part of the new MSW program at Fairfield.
Nicole Rabito is Danbury born and bred and graduated from St. Gregory the Great School. She had been active in faith activities, co-directing Bible Vacation Camps and teaching religious education at St. Gregory. When she went to a liberal arts college in New Hampshire, people around her did not participate in a life of faith. For a while she stopped going to church, but “I felt like something was missing and a piece of me was gone.”
When she began going to Mass again, she felt whole. Even though she was majoring in film, she realized teaching was her calling. “It brought me true happiness. Working with and watching children grow is what I love to do and have a passion for.
At St. Joseph’s she has the chance to explore two different areas of interest: assistant teacher in grades K-1 and religion teacher for grades 6-8.
“When the middle schoolers see us and they know that we’re filled with faith and want to participate in the Catholic Church—it’s vital for them to see that,” she said. “They should not be ashamed of or ever feel alone like I did in the beginning of college without any support. I want them to know that participating in their faith is fun and will make them feel closer to God and his presence in their lives every day.”
As the school year progresses, Rabito has found herself increasingly drawn to working with the younger students. “My goal is to teach Kindergarten or First Grade after this program. I want to make them want to learn. My assistant teacher position in their K-1 classroom at St Joseph’s is so beneficial and I am learning a lot.”
Professional development, a sense of community and spiritual growth are integral to the Aquinas Fellowship Program. “We have support and love and guidance and listening all rolled up into one,” said Curry. Through the AFP, these talented, faith-filled teachers, and those to follow, will renew and transform Catholic school classrooms.
(The window for applying to the next Aquinas Fellowship cohort opened October 1. To see details or to apply, visit dioceseofbridgeportcatholicschools.com/aquinas-fellowship-program. For any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
By PAT HENNESSY