"It felt like an instant fit"

The Alexander family’s journey to a Catholic school, reopening a door to the church

Erin and Shawn Alexander see the hand of God working in their lives. Nestled in their Colfax home with daughters Maple, 6, and Magdalene, 2, they relish the “breathtaking” splendour of the foothills and reflect on their relocation to California from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

At the time of their house-hunt in 2018, Erin was nine months pregnant with their second child and admittedly distraught at the prospect of moving away from her large family. Yet practicality led them here as Shawn’s consulting work had required him in California much of the time throughout the previous seven years.

“It’s a real miracle we found this house,” Erin affirms, noting the beautiful view and great neighbors as perfect and welcoming gifts. Dozens of others had applied for the bucolic rental property. Still, they toured the home, prayed and convinced the agent to rent to them.

A Sacred Purpose on Earth

Part of the attraction to the Colfax area was a nearby private school. The Alexanders enrolled Maple in its pre-school, optimistic for new beginnings. Then, the world changed. The coronavirus pandemic spread, rapidly altering old ways and forging new ways.

“COVID-19 probably made a lot of us rethink our choices,” Shawn shares candidly, stressing how circumstances led them to question school costs and capabilities. Equally, if not more important, how might a school support the human mission to serve and love one another?

“We have a sacred purpose on earth,” Erin stresses. Awareness of this is “the greatest gift that our Catholic experience gave us,” referring to the couple’s Catholic upbringing and an indelible yearning to give that same, strong faith foundation to their daughters.

The Alexanders looked at another local faith-based school, while also making a call to principal Jenny Oliver of St. Joseph School in Auburn.

“I was kind of on the fence,” Erin admits of the possibility of enrolling their daughter in St. Joseph School, yet quickly adds how any doubt soon melted away. “You know God works in interesting ways.”

“It felt like an instant fit,” Erin remembers. “Jenny was the first draw for me,” Erin says of her first impression of the principal whose obvious faithfulness came across in their conversation. Erin mentions an overt “come as you are” feeling and a prominent message of “you’re welcome here.”

This powerful moment of grace made all the difference to Erin and Shawn, who acknowledge their own sense of belonging in the church had suffered over the years. The couple candidly tells of their respective Catholic school educations, their deep and abiding faith, and service work in Uganda. Yet, they also impart a range of hurts experienced over the years from abuse scandals in Uganda to frictions in their home parish in Milwaukee. With a master’s degree in Catholic theology from Marquette University, Shawn ponders how education choices often follow church life “but in our case, church life is following education and bringing us back to the church.”

“We never stepped away from our faith in Jesus,” he insists, but admits the weight of pain and disappointment was “hard on us emotionally.”

As the door to a Catholic school opened, so too the Alexanders reopened the door to the Catholic Church seeking sacred purpose and striving to find God in all things.

Shine Your Light

“I started listening to Catholic hymns on my phone,” Erin shares with gratitude for her Catholic roots. The songs have been “so comforting” at a time when anxiety stirs amid COVID-19 worries.

Erin feels her spirituality has supported her through the pandemic. She also credits the theme for St. Joseph School’s year – shine your light – as an uplifting mantra for their entire family as it mirrors their personal values.

“Your light is here to serve the world around you,” Erin emphasizes, so pleased in how Maple’s school values and schoolwork echo the chorus already singing in their hearts.

Attending class daily, Maple brings home projects and assignments to share with the family. “We talk about things in our family that we wouldn’t normally have been discussing,” Erin explains. Gratitude, virtue, saints and faith fill their kitchen table talk.

“All the little things they send home have really enriched our family,” Erin says of the “little gems” which restore their own faith. “It’s been very healing for us.”

“Especially with the COVID-19 challenges, I see how dedicated they are,” Erin says of St. Joseph’s principal, teachers and staff. “It is a ministry; clearly a ministry.”

“They’ve done such a good job,” Shawn says, expounding on the response to the COVID-19 crisis. In just five months they say they have witnessed authentic community spirit and friendship where families care about each other; superb organization and commitment to a safe and healthy learning environment; regular communication and efforts to partner with parents in the education and faith formation of their children.

“The hand of God was moving us,” Erin says, considering all the steps and stages to California: to Colfax, to St. Joseph School, to healing, over time and unexpectedly. It was an instant fit.

Learn More

About Catholic schools in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/schools

(Header: Erin and Shawn Alexander outside their home in Colfax with daughters Maple, right, and Magdalene.)

Catholic Herald Issue