Cultivating a classical education

This article was posted on: January 3, 2024

Holy Name Catholic Church and Newman Catholic Schools set to open a classical school in 2024

What do a chalice, asbestos and a Green Bay priest have in common? They all played a part in bringing a unique new learning experience to Central Wisconsin. “That’s one way God draws straight with crooked lines,” said Father Sam Martin, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Wausau.

Father Martin has been the driving force behind a new, albeit historical, way of learning, known as a classical school, which will be opening in Wausau in 2024. Other schools of its kind exist throughout Wisconsin in La Crosse, Green Bay, Madison and many other communities.

When Father Martin arrived in Wausau, he was met by an empty school building—one, he said, that would have been demolished had it not been for the asbestos inside. Father Martin was also greeted by a chalice inside the school chapel. It was left behind by the students and staff in 2004 during the final year Holy Name School was open. On it was engraved, “Given in gratitude by the school children and teachers of Holy Name 2004.”

Years passed and the school sat empty as God’s plan started to come to fruition.

The idea to reopen the school, this time as a classical school, was first presented to Father Martin shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic by a fellow priest, the Very Reverend John Girotti, who currently serves as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Green Bay. The building, the chalice and Father Girotti’s words all sowed seeds in Father Martin’s mind.

In 2021, Bishop Callahan granted Father Martin permission to begin the initial steps of exploring what a classical school could look like in Wausau. “We moved forward, always with the idea that if we hit a dead end, we would accept it; God’s will be done. Well, that never came,” Father Martin added with a smile. With an open road ahead of them and no dead ends in sight, Father Martin traveled to Green Bay to observe and learn at the St. John Paul II Classical School.

Conversations continued within the community, and ultimately, in 2023, Bishop Callahan approved plans to open a classical school in the fall of 2024. Since receiving approval, the building, which was built in 1948, has undergone several renovations to bring it up to code and to incorporate advancements like an elevator, an ADA bathroom, energy-efficient plumbing, heating, and lighting and new paint.

As the renovations began, the focus shifted to finding a leader for the school. Enter Timothy Vail, who was hired as the school’s headmaster. His hiring, like the decision to open the school, appears to be an act of divine providence.

Previously, Vail had been working in Michigan as a Catholic school principal and had no plans to uproot his life or family. While working on renovations to turn their Michigan house into a dream home, Vail and his family were at a crossroads with a major decision to make.

“It was no quick discernment. I relied on God’s providence and said, ‘Lord, if this is what you want me to do, I am at peace with it,’ and I had received more than a human peace about it, so I knew it was for sure,” Vail said. “I found it to be the perfect fit for me and felt like it was my calling to come and serve in Wisconsin.”

He chuckled, “God willing, He can use me in many good ways, and I can be a little more than just a worthless servant. As it says in Scripture, ‘Lord, I have done what you have asked me to do,’ and that’s my calling.”

What is a Classical School? 

The million-dollar question among parishioners at Holy Name Parish and the Wausau community has been “What is a classical school?” “Classical education’s end is wisdom. It’s a timeless wisdom. It’s God’s wisdom, which they can discover by their own reason, unaided by grace, but especially with God’s grace, you can receive a great deal of wisdom through a Catholic classical education,” Vail said. The curriculum is based on the liberal arts, but it is different from the kind of liberal arts education many may be familiar with in higher education.

In the grammar school stage, students learn how to speak properly and understand the workings of the English, Latin and Greek languages. This enables them to understand the Bible in its original language and understand philosophy and ancient teachings.

In the reasoning stage, students learn the rules of logic that God has placed in the human soul. They develop logical thinking, something Vail said is not commonly taught in modern education.

In the rhetoric stage, students learn how to understand their audience, how to persuade them and how to detect deception.

In the arithmetic stage, Vail explained that students go beyond basic arithmetic to delve deeper into patterns, theory, numbers and their relationships.

In the geometry stage, students learn about numbers in spatial relationships, which include shapes, sizes and positions.

In the music stage, students study mathematical music and beats, rather than modern music.

Finally, in the astronomy stage, students will study the universe and its structure because classical church clerics needed to understand astronomy to understand feast days.

Vail says what distinguishes a classical education from a modern education is that students are taught reasoning and moral philosophy. They will learn ethics, church teachings and finding what is truly good. The curriculum is based on Catholic teaching, but only theology is offered as a matter of Faith. Vail said this makes the school appealing to both Catholics and non-Catholics who are seeking wisdom. The end goal is not to teach students what to think but rather how to think.

“Wisdom is infused—it is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Information is a piece of cake—anyone with a smartphone can find facts. You need a teacher to achieve knowledge. Wisdom is the science of the saints,” Father Martin explained.

The teachers at Holy Name School will work together with parents to develop well-rounded students. Vail believes that parents are the primary educators and that the school should partner with and support them in the education of their children. Unlike modern schools, Holy Name will follow a classical approach that does not include a K-12 format. Instead, students will progress at their own pace, starting at year/section 1 in grammar, regardless of their age. This allows for a more personalized approach to education, where students advance based on their demonstration of mastery rather than class/seat time. This approach is similar to how people are trained for jobs in the real world, where everyone starts as a novice and advances based on their skills and knowledge.

Technology has become a familiar element in the classroom for many students. However, according to Vail, technology is not a necessary tool for education, but rather, it can be used to enhance it. He believes that the question to consider is the end goal of integrating technology into education. Seeking the curriculum offered by the school will not make students any less equipped to do well in their studies. In fact, it will come quite naturally. School leaders remind us that brilliant scientists and mathematicians throughout history were trained in logical thinking without technology. They mastered “the language of numbers” and were trained to see patterns and connections in their studies and experiments. This equipped them to be pioneers of scientific discovery.

“The three transcendentals, truth, goodness and beauty, are closely associated with a classical movement. I think that’s what we are universally seeking in the Catholic life”  —Timothy Vail

Why Classical Education?

The Holy Name Catholic School website states, “A good classical school strives to help parents form saints of the new millennium through the Catholic classical transition, seeking what is good, true and beautiful.”

“There are three transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty associated with a classical movement. I think that’s what we universally seek in the Catholic life,” Vail said. “The school’s primary focus is intellectual formation, though it is also moral, theological and philosophical in a sense that we are seeking wisdom. It is a beautiful thing to seek the transcendentals.”

Vail suggests that if you want to see how effective this type of education can be, look no further than past leaders of the church. “It’s what the saints were educated in. Every great saint, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albertus Magnus and all the church doctors were formed in this tradition. It’s a timeless wisdom that the Lord has given to us. It’s what God has put into the human soul. These are objective, universal, timeless things that have been lost in the modern world. There’s a fullness in the Catholic Church; there’s a fullness in the classical tradition.”

One of those saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote in “Summa Theologica”, “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides the philosophical sciences built up by human reason.”

Newman Catholic Schools’ president, Jeff Gulan, believes that parents and students will benefit from the classical school’s inclusion in the school system. Gulan says this school gives parents another education option.

“The advantage is giving students and parents the ability to choose the level of Catholic education they desire. We have parents who are looking for more in their Catholic education. A classical education will provide them with the options they are looking for. It is a true blessing that we are able to provide this for our students and parents,” Gulan said.

In today’s education, Father Martin and Vail argue that the current approach has veered away from traditional wisdom and has become more focused on cramming for tests rather than understanding and retaining the information. They believe that classical education can help children recognize patterns, order and relationships while encouraging them to delve deeper into concepts.

“When you start education, you start with something, but you also end with something,” Vail said. Vail and Father Martin hope for students that their “something” will be lifelong wisdom and love of God that will end in the beatific vision. As stated in the Gospel of John, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him just as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2)

The Timing is Right  

Now, nine months before the school bells ring for the first time in two decades, Gulan, Vail and Father Martin invoke these words of wisdom for anyone considering getting back to the basics with a classical education.

“St. Araneus said, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ When people are curious and filled with wonder and awe about learning, they become fully alive. The world flourishes with more people like that,” Father Martin said. “In my experience, classical schools cultivate children who grow up to be adults who are fully alive. They have abundant love, joy and service to offer to a world that craves it. The importance of the good, the true, and the beautiful cannot be overstated in a world that desperately needs them.”

Vail added, “If you want your son or daughter to become wise, intellectual and morally sound individuals, then our doors are open.”

“The landscape of schools in our area is changing. While schools are contracting and class sizes growing, we want people in the Wausau area to know that the need for quality education is increasing, and Newman Catholic Schools can meet that need,” Gulan said. “The classical education provided by classical schools does not rely on technology and instead focuses on thought and inquiry. We strongly believe that this form of Catholic education is something that will meet the needs of students and parents at a time when parents have raised questions about how their children are taught and the quality of education they receive.”

According to a survey conducted in 2023, 40 children are interested in enrolling. The tuition for each student is $4,000, and vouchers are available. For more information, general queries can be directed to the church at 715.842.4543. You can also visit the school website at

The million-dollar question among parishioners at Holy Name Parish and the Wausau community has been, “What is a classical school?” “Classical education’s end is wisdom. It’s a timeless wisdom. It’s God’s wisdom.

Mr. Timothy Vail is serving as the first school headmaster.

“The school’s primary focus is intellectual formation, though it is also moral, theological and philosophical in a sense that we are seeking wisdom. It is a beautiful thing to seek the transcendentals.”

Story by Clint Berge
Published in the January/February 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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