In the fall of 1999, a fourth-grader named Dewayne Thomas enrolled at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland. His family was attraced by the school's success in education, its focus on life committeed to service and its encouragement of civic engagement.
The Thomases were not Catholic, but they felt a Catholic education would result in Dewayne becoming a better citizen of the world. Although academics were the primary reason for choosing St. Thomas Aquinas, an extra-credit assignment would prove to have much more powerful consequences. Or, as Dewayne said, “Who knew an extra-credit assignment could lead me to Christ?”
As a sixth-grader, Dewayne was given the following extra-credit assignment: attend a Catholic Mass. The next Sunday, Dewayne and his mother did just that, attending Mass at St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Cleveland. They had no idea the change that this encounter with the Blessed Sacrament would have on their lives.
When he saw the Eucharist and heard the celebrant say, “Behold the body of Christ,” Dewayne said a spiritual clarity and warmth overwhelmed him and he realized that he was “home.” He and his mother attended the RCIA program and were baptized together at the following Easter Vigil. Dewayne graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas and, later, Cleveland Central Catholic High School.
Today, he considers his parish community as his family. Dewayne has served St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima Parish in a variety of capacities for nearly two decades. As a young teen, he was an altar server. Later, he became an usher and then an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Now, as a young adult, he works along with others to develop the parish’s vibrant young adult ministry.
Dewayne credits his Catholic education for his strong commitment to parish life and for his continued work in the development and cultivation of his community. Most importantly, he said his Catholic education helped him lead him home to the Church, where he developed a personal relationship with Christ.
“My Catholic education, along with my parish family, have taught me the importance of community. Ultimately, we, as Christians, have a responsibility to our families, our communities and our God,” Dewayne said.
In the past decade, non-Catholic enrollment in Catholic schools around the country has increased from 2% to about 12-15%, according to the National Catholic Education Association. But in some inner cities, including Cleveland, that trend has been magnified several times over. As a result, Catholic schools’ demographics have shifted; and in many cases, they have seen a dramatic increase in enrollment for students of color.
While it may seem that the change in demographics is for secular or academic reasons, school officials said it is important to remember that Catholic schools exist to introduce students to Jesus Christ, and to assist them as they grow in their love of him. Through the combination of academics, catechesis and the celebration of the sacraments, all students — Catholic and non-Catholic — gain an appreciation for the Lord and his creation.