By Jorge Luis Macías     3/4/2016

Dedication, leadership, honor and respect were the virtues aspired to by Diego del Toro and Santiago Limón Lopez Contreras during their stay at St. Catherine’s Academy. Their graduation on Feb. 6 was the final day they dressed in their school military uniforms.

Diego, 13, and Santiago, 14, are among 45 graduates from Mexico, China and the United States who participated in the 126th Anniversary of St. Catherine’s Academy.

The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose founded St. Catherine’s Academy in 1889 and from the institution’s earliest days Dominican charism has been the primary influence at the school.

“Be who God meant to you to be and you will set the world on fire,” once said Saint Catherine of Siena, Dominican saint and patron of St. Catherine’s Academy.

That is the motto both boys learned from priests, nuns, sisters and lay people at St. Catherine’s, all of whom shared a commitment to holistic education and the pursuit of the truth.

“When I came the first time I didn’t know any English,” Diego says. “But I loved the training and spiritual values instilled in me to be a good man.” He now dreams of becoming a great soccer player.

His friend Santiago mentioned that one of his favorite lessons last year was religion. “I learned that Christianity has been the only true religion for more than 2,000 years,” he says. “Every day I prayed and asked God to protect me and my family.”

At the graduation ceremony, Diego and Santiago were all smiles. The boys were joined by their families, who traveled from Mexico for the event, and danced with their mothers at the Military Ball held at the Double Tree Suites Hotel in Anaheim.

Unlike public schools, St. Catherine’s Academy instructs children from kindergarten through eighth grade in intense military, academic and spiritual lessons.

“We encourage the children to always do the best they can,” says Sister
Johnellen Turner, OP, administrator and school principal. “Our commitment is to build within young men a foundation for success through a formation program. That program is rooted in the Dominican charism and emphasizes faith, leadership, academics and service.”

The St. Catherine’s Academy military tradition is led by Colonel Barry B. Bizzell (U.S. Marine Corps, Retired), Commandant; Captain Angel Ramos (U.S. Army); and Sergeant Tyr May (U.S. Marine Corps). In addition to running this unique military program, these men serve as positive male role models.

“We respect the boys’ religion and we do not try to convert anyone [to Catholicism]” says Colonel Bizzell. “But we support them so they are aware and know that God is something necessary for being a complete person.”

The foundation of St. Catherine’s program is based on four pillars: community, ministry (service), study and prayer. This creates a faith-filled community where students of all faiths are able to grow in their personal spirituality.

The pillar of community is emphasized by the military and Catholic traditions. In fact, many cadets list “brotherhood” as their favorite aspect of St. Catherine’s Academy. Students learn to work together, rely on each other and help one another. They form lasting bonds.

“When children wear a uniform, they are taught to be responsible, independent, to have self-discipline, to follow rules, to be humble and to develop qualities that will lead them to the achievement of their goals,” Captain Ramos says. “Our primary objectives are to develop within each cadet a keen sense of honor, commitment, cooperation, initiative, leadership and respect.”

The structured environment and military tradition is something that Diego’s mother appreciates.

“Words cannot express how happy and proud we are as parents,” Karina Larissa Contreras says. “We thank God for this opportunity in our son’s life. His achievements were not easy, but I’m sure he will be a great man.”

Ana Sofia Lopez, Santiago’s mother, agrees. “Our son come a long way and we’re proud of him. Even if he is only 14 years old he is determined, honest and his character is such a joy to watch over the years. We have watched him grow into such a great person and we know he will do great things in his future.

“I’m happy,” she says. “After two years my son comes back home. We missed him a lot, and we want him there [in Guadalajara].”

More than 300 people attended the Military Ball following the ceremony. Many traveled from Mexico, China and from across the U.S. to participate.

A highlight of the event was the Grand March & Waltz, during which graduating eighth grade cadets, including Diego and Santiago, danced a traditional waltz with their mothers. The waltz showcased the qualities cadets have developed during their time at St. Catherine’s: dedication, leadership, honor and respect.