Rebecca Pontisso remembers cringing when a parent told her that she decided to send her child to a Catholic school mainly because there was less of a chance he would get beaten up there, versus in the public school system.
“I thought: has it really come to this?” says the principal and co-founder of Mary, Mother of God elementary school in the Parkdale section of Toronto. The exchange was one of the factors that motivated Pontisso to look into establishing the independent school, which now boasts an annually growing complement of 48 students (with more on a waiting list) in Grades 1 through 8.
Pontisso is a graduate of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto’s faculty of education. She spoke recently at Toronto’s St. John the Evangelist Parish during Campaign Life Coalition’s 13th annual fundraising dinner and dance, which attracted pro-life supporters from across southern Ontario for an evening of levity and merriment.
Pontisso’s school is recognized by the province of Ontario as an independent school, and as a charitable organization by Revenue Canada. Its students are attended to by six staff and 17 volunteers.
She helped found the school five years ago as one way of helping redress what she perceived as failings in the separate, Ontario Catholic school system. “I was saddened by what I saw in the schools,” she said. “It was, quite frankly, depressing … My heaviness of heart moved me to pray: does it have to be this way?”
She said she was led by God to found Mary, Mother of God School, which sees God as the foundation of its teaching system. “I felt God saying, ‘I can make all things possible when you put me first’ … We are first and foremost children of God. God — the Truth — must be the foundation of all learning.”
Pontisso added it is “amazing” to see the transformation that takes place in a school where God is put at the centre. The system of discipline that is in place there prompts students to actually thank their teachers for correction.
“What continues to delight … is making Christ the centre of our school,” she said. “But what does that mean? (It means that) vision, structure and goals are filtered through a faith in Christ. We have many reminders of God throughout the day. It’s made our faith real.”
She said being Christ-centred means more than just tokenism. A chaplain visits the school at least weekly. “We are to pray without ceasing … Prayer is our first responsibility as children of God.”
When the school opened five years ago, there were just 10 students taught by two teachers. Now, inquiries come in from all over Toronto and names get added to the waiting list. “We have enjoyed the wonders and marvels God has made,” she said. “Mass is the pinnacle of our prayer life … When people meet God concretely, it is so much better than a reasoned argument.”
The school also has an effect on those who visit, she said. “Visitors realize life can be better and more full, even if they don’t know why. Parents say the transformation they’ve seen in their children is noticeable. But without prayer and sacramental life, I don’t believe such changes can occur.”
The emphasis on spirituality once prompted students as young as eight years old to organize a prayer vigil for a dying person. Pontisso believes such manifestations hold a key to promoting a life-affirming ethic among the young. “Making our schools pro-life to the full relies on prayer,” she said. “God makes possible those things we think are impossible.”
Pontisso said Mary, Mother of God School is looking to grow yet more in the years ahead, but whether it actually does so “depends on God.”