Spiritual Formation Department Supports Student Identity and Success

posted January 8, 2015

The sweet, earthy scent of sage lingers reassuringly in the halls of Red Cloud Indian School. Between classes, students shuffle down the halls between geometry and anatomy, art and a new class on contemporary indigenous issues.

“I can’t imagine any kind of education being totally complete or fulfilling without a spiritual component to it, Catholic or otherwise,” says Sister Connie Schmidt, Red Cloud’s new Assistant for Evangelization and Formation and a former religion teacher.

“We are body and soul. The beauty, as well as the challenge for our school, is that we were founded as both a Catholic and Lakota institution. That’s who we are. If you take that away—either of the components—you’d lose something that makes the school unique and powerful.”

While many schools around the country shy away from topics of faith and spirituality, Red Cloud Indian School incorporates not one but two spiritual philosophies into nearly every aspect of a student’s educational experience. This model, based on Ignatian pedagogy and Lakota spirituality is centered within the school’s Spiritual Formation Department.

Students are offered a collection of classes on ethics, faith and justice, Catholic rites and Lakota rituals, as well as class retreats, school masses, Inipi (sweat lodge) ceremonies and community service projects throughout their time at the school.

Sister Connie believes that the Department goes beyond a traditional sense of education and focuses on holistic formation of the mind and spirit that will have a rippling effect throughout their entire education.

“You can’t test a student’s spirituality per say, but what you can do is help form a spiritual relationship with a student and their God,” says Sister Connie. “The Spiritual Formation Department helps provide the tools for students to take life in, to move and grow holistically, spiritually.”

On the reservation, many students and their families face undue hardships, often on a daily basis. Russ Cournoyer, Lakota spirituality teacher and Department chair believes spiritual formation enables students to internalize teachings from both the Lakota and Catholic traditions and find their own path toward a positive, healthy life.

“I’ve heard from students who have since graduated from Red Cloud, who have gone off to other colleges out of state,” says Cournoyer. “While they sometimes end up feeling homesick or lonely, they soon realize that what they learned in their spiritual formation classes can help them cope.”

“They might remember to burn some sage or sweetgrass, or stop, center themselves and pray for a few minutes. They have told me they find the strength to persevere and continue on.”

Cournoyer also contributes the students’ prayerful outlook on life to the administration’s support of a holistic, Ignatian approach to spiritual formation. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits) endeavoured to ‘see God in all things.’ With the support of the school’s religious staff, educators encourage mindfulness throughout the day.

“We encourage quiet reflection, not just in spiritual formation classes, but in other classes as well,” says Sister Schmidt. “It’s about unplugging from modern day devices and stepping back from the trials of the day to just be in the presence of God, ponder God’s spirit and consider what’s been good, not good, and where that might lead you.”

During her many years at the school Sister Schmidt notes that she has never found a student who doesn’t appreciate the Ignatian approach and how well it complements the Lakota way. She believes the unique approach to spiritual formation affects not only the students but herself and her colleagues as well.

“I’ve even learned how to pray in a different way during my time at Red Cloud,” admits Sister Schmidt. “With the prevalence of Ignatian spirituality and through my experience of Lakota spirituality, I feel so much more enriched—God is more colorful out here.”

“A lot of times students go off to colleges or other communities, and they don’t realize how much they have grown.” says Russ Cournoyer. “It’s only after they are asked by their peers that they realize how much they actually know about Catholic and Lakota spirituality, and how deeply it has become a vital part of their identity.

Meagan McMahon has served as a volunteer teacher for the last three years, joining the spiritual formation department this past fall. Echoing Sister Schmidt’s sentiment, McMahon has found her own spirituality deepening while encouraging students to think about and engage with life’s most important questions of faith and identity.

“I feel that the spiritual formation classes are very important,” says McMahon. “They help students to see the bigger picture; to reflect upon the purpose and meaning of life. I think especially for high school students, this is very important, as they are becoming adults and deciding what kind of life they want to live, and who they want to be. I love being a small part of this process.”

As the class of 2015 moves into their final semester of secondary education and plans for their future, Red Cloud Indian School will be there cheering them on, every step of the way. A holistic approach to growing the mind, body and spirit is at the core of the school’s own identity, inspiring our educators every day to creatively enable our students for success in whatever they choose to do, as they form their paths.