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The Power and the Glory : Military and Spiritual Disciplines Work in Tandem at St. Catherine’s in Anaheim

Times Staff Writer

The sun is just beginning to rise above the horizon, bathing the royal palms and quiet parade grounds in the first light of a new day, when the boys of E Company wake to the bugle call.

Twenty-five cadets climb slowly out of their bunks, sleepy-eyed young soldiers preparing for Friday inspection, making sure that shoes are spit-shined, ribbons are in place and the dress green uniforms are pressed and creased.

They make their beds with the precision of a drill instructor, tucking the sheets in so tightly that they appear starched and ironed. Then, one by one, they place their teddy bears neatly on top of the pillows. Teddy bears?

OK, so this isn’t West Point. And what if the cadets of E Company are more accustomed to cradling stuffed animals than rifles and are wont to demand that a night light be left on after taps?

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This is St. Catherine’s Military School of Anaheim, and when it goes looking for a few good men, they’re likely to be right out of kindergarten.

Located off Harbor Boulevard on an 8-acre campus dotted with tall palms and evergreens, St. Catherine’s is home to about 200 students in the second through eighth grades. As old as Orange County, the school is on the verge of celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Founded in 1889 by Dominican nuns on the site of a former vineyard in the German settlement of Anaheim, St. Catherine’s began as a small parish school for St. Boniface Catholic Church. It became an orphanage in 1900, then a boarding school for boys. And in 1925, it took on the military flavor that it retains today.

Just why St. Catherine’s became a military school seems a mystery. Sister Regina Marie, the administrator, speculates only that “I think it was something they wanted to do. A lot of schools were doing it then.”

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Although St. Catherine’s is military in character, making the grade here has more to do with scholastic achievement than military skills.

This is a military school that de-emphasizes the military: Dress ribbons are awarded for excellence in liturgy and choir, and the role of the drill sergeant is played by one of the dozen Dominican nuns who run the place. The faculty is composed of nuns, laic teachers and the commandant and his assistant.

The military side of St. Catherine’s, in fact, seems nothing more than a convenient way of getting the students to behave while teaching them something about leadership and patriotism. Despite the uniforms and occasional parade drills, the emphasis is on back-to-basics education, religion and self-discipline.

The closest thing to a military course that is offered is marksmanship, and it isn’t even required.

“We spend a lot of time trying to do away with the stereotype of a military school,” said Sister Mary Menegatti, school principal. “This is a school that emphasizes leadership. The military and spiritual work in tandem here.”

Of the 200 students at St. Catherine’s, the only Catholic military school in the western United States, roughly half are boarders and half are day students. Known for its strict discipline and quality education--it is accredited as an elementary school by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges--St. Catherine’s long has attracted students from other countries, primarily Mexico.

There are currently 25 Mexican students, fewer than in many previous years because the steady devaluation of the peso has made St. Catherine’s prohibitively expensive for all but the richest Mexican families. There are also students from Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia.

For those who do not know English, or who are just learning it, the school provides English classes and private tutoring. Many foreigners have been so pleased by their own experiences at St. Catherine’s that they have sent their children there.

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All this doesn’t come cheap. Seven-day boarders pay an annual tuition exceeding $12,000, roughly the same as undergraduate tuition at Yale and equivalent to that charged by full-fledged military academies. Students who live there five days a week and go home on weekends pay $10,400 annually, while day students are charged $4,100 a year, excluding uniforms.

What the school offers that public schools cannot, say the sisters and the parents, is an atmosphere that encourages scholastic excellence and leadership, while demanding discipline and respect for authority.

“I find the school unique,” said Amador Gonzalez, a civil engineer from Yorba Linda whose 13-year-old son, Marco, has been at St. Catherine’s for 9 years. “I like the military aspect because of the discipline. The Catholic part really governs, but they make the kids proud of themselves.

“The boys don’t get away with anything,” he added. “They will learn (in class) or they will be tutored. They stress scholastics there. I tell you, they come out of that school really proud young men. They are polite and they stand up with anybody. If I had four sons, I’d send them all there.”

Gonzalez’s son, who started at St. Catherine’s when it still had a kindergarten program, will graduate this year. His experience at St. Catherine’s has been so successful that Marco likely will continue on in parochial schools, his father said.

“You learn a lot here,” Marco said. “I think I learned more here than I would have in public schools. They’re strict, but if you do your homework, you don’t have any problems.”

Tom Ruggieri, a Newport Beach sales and marketing executive, said he sent his son to St. Catherine’s 4 years ago because “he was a little bit of a disciplinary problem in the public school.” He added:

“My son went from being a poor student to a B student. I just think the school is dynamic from the standpoint of education. The boys are constantly challenged to do well and exceed. They are rewarded and recognized by their peers for doing well in just about every area.

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“They don’t put up with any horsing around in the classrooms or talking or talking back. They start problems, they get thrown out of there.”

Helen Ronan, a math and English teacher at St. Catherine’s, said the secret of the school’s success may rest in its ability to mesh the military and religious to encourage scholastic achievement.

“The military aspect doesn’t bother me because to me, military means discipline, honor and patriotism,” she said. “Those are qualities that would enhance anyone. They have an opportunity to learn leadership here.

“But this is a Catholic school, and we have the advantage of teaching our faith and permeating our curriculum with Christian-Catholic values.”

Menegatti said the religious emphasis is as much Christian as Catholic.

“There is a formal religious class every day that espouses the name of Jesus Christ, but we don’t make an effort to make everyone Catholic,” the principal said. “We had a Buddhist once who was an altar boy, and he didn’t convert.”

The day at St. Catherine’s begins with bugle call at 6:30 a.m. and ends with taps at 9 p.m. The little time allowed for television is strictly monitored by the nuns.

“I don’t think you’ll find our boys watching ‘Dallas,’ ” Menegatti said. “We feel we’re the guardians of the boys, so we monitor what they watch.”

In addition to classes, which include the daily religion course and computer training, the students practice close-order drills on the parade grounds. Each morning after reveille, they line up outside and march off to breakfast, and every Friday they endure a tough dorm inspection by a retired Marine colonel who serves as assistant commandant.

Under a system of positive reinforcement, cadets earn ribbons for good grades, good conduct, participation in liturgy and choir, classroom effort, music, athletics and dormitory excellence. Those who excel become dorm officers or company commanders.

“The wearing of the bars for effort in every classroom subject is important,” Menegatti said. “The kids become very goal-oriented. They get recognized for all areas. A piece of paper is nice, but you should see how proud they are when they wear the bars.”

When the cadets take field trips, the nuns are invariably approached by strangers who comment on how well the students behave, Menegatti said.

“People are impressed with the way the boys handle themselves in public,” she said. “Our boys seem to be a cut above other boys their age. They know how to carry themselves and communicate.”

Disciplinary problems are dealt with through demerits, loss of rank and eventually private sessions involving the nuns, the student and his parents. Menegatti stressed that St. Catherine’s was not meant to be a reform school for wayward children--"We don’t want someone else’s problems,” she said--and that an average of three to four cadets are expelled every year because of behavior or academic problems.

Lawrence P. Zaborowski, school commandant, credits the military foundation with creating the proper disciplinary atmosphere for academic achievement, but even that goes only so far.

He said the school takes advantage of “the motivation, the leadership and the pride” of the military, but not the blind obedience required in the real armed forces. “We are not leading these kids into battle. If a kid does something wrong here, it’s not like we’re going to lose a helicopter with 30 people on board.”

Col. Bill Thornbury, the retired Marine and assistant commandant who makes the Friday inspection rounds, said cadets this young “really get into the esprit of it. They enjoy wearing the uniform and the discipline comes naturally.”

“Besides,” he added, marching is “an easy way to get 200 kids from one place to another in an orderly manner.”

St. Catherine’s seems to have succeeded in instilling in the cadets the idea that education is the key to success.

In one group of four eighth-graders, the career choices included becoming a doctor, a scientist, a neurosurgeon and a computer engineer.

At 14, Gustavo Cuevas has already earned enough medals, bars and ribbons to cover one side of his dress greens. He has a green and white cord denoting him as a dorm officer, bars for consistently earning A’s and Bs in classes, bars for good conduct, parade bars and ribbons for excelling in liturgy.

“I like it here because they teach you to understand,” said Gustavo, whose parents live in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. “They teach you discipline.”

“We’re here to become better people,” added Joseph Lu, a seventh-grader whose parents are in the import-export business in Anaheim. “It’s a better education and that is important.”


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