HAMDEN – As Sister Mary Grace Walsh steps into her newly created position as archdiocesan provost of education, evangelization and catechesis, one thing is clear to her: “I truly believe it’s what the Lord is asking me to do now,” she said.
As provost, she will be responsible for developing a continuum of faith development and formation that extends from childhood to adulthood for the faithful in the archdiocese.
“When I think about being formed in the faith,” she said, “it’s not just about knowledge; it’s also about formation, about becoming disciples and growing in relationship with the Lord Jesus. And not just in Catholic schools, but also in our religious education programs … in everything we do.”
“We want to help people have a more vibrant faith life – have a relationship not with something, but with someone, who is Jesus,” she said. “That to me is the key to evangelization. We’re all called to be evangelizers, but we need to learn how to do that in our schools and in our parishes.”
Sister Mary Grace, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is returning to her home Archdiocese of Hartford after serving the Diocese of Bridgeport for 10 years – most recently as the superintendent of Catholic schools and secretary for Catholic education and faith formation.
During that time, she helped develop a strategic plan for Catholic schools and participated in a year-long synod process to develop a plan for the future of the Catholic Church in the diocese.
“I believe I can bring a lot of what I’ve learned in Bridgeport to Hartford, along with my years in ministry,” said Sister Mary Grace.
Her colleagues agree. “I think she is an absolutely wonderful person [who is] grounded in her personal spirituality and deep faith, and who is an excellent listener,” said Patrick Turner, director of strategic and pastoral planning for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
“She will bring an understanding of the challenges facing the archdiocese,” he continued. “I’ve watched her with our students, parents and faculty; and I know she will be a wonderful collaborator and partner with Archbishop [Leonard] Blair. It’s a big loss for us but a great gain for the Archdiocese of Hartford.”
Anne McCrory, chief legal and real estate officer for the Diocese of Bridgeport, concurred. “She’s exceptional to work with,” she said. “Her knowledge of Catholic education, her professionalism, her diligence and hard work – everything about her will be missed. She is grounded in her faith in a way that I rarely see in someone who is also willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.”
Sister Mary Grace reflected on her own work ethic. “I love working with and collaborating with people,” she said, as well as synthesizing large amounts of material, planning strategically and facilitating groups.
“I think one of my gifts is bringing groups of people together,” she offered, observing that sometimes the church “operates in silos” where offices work independently of each other. “But the church is saying, ‘let’s collaborate,’” she explained.
In her new position, Sister Mary Grace is responsible for the Office of the Permanent Diaconate Education, Office of Catholic Schools, Office of Religious Education and Office of Faith Development and Evangelization.
She said that her initial plan is “to listen to the people who are already in these positions, hear all the good things they’re doing and ask about their challenges,” she said. “I need to hear from them – what they joys are, what their challenges are, how I can help them, how I can serve them – and from there, I think I can develop a plan.”
Ultimately, she said, “It’s about service to the parishes and schools and people of the archdiocese. How can we serve their parishes and help them in their journey with their parishioners?” she asked. “To me, that’s key.
“Catechesis is something that is ongoing for all of us,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter whether people are in a formal program or not. Our parishes need to be centers of catechesis.”
Sister Mary Grace noted that Pope Francis has been talking about the pastoral theme of “spiritual accompaniment” or the “theology of accompaniment” for the church.
“To me, that a beautiful analogy for how the church needs to operate,” she said. “We need to accompany people on their life’s journey and on their faith journey,” by training the leaders who will offer spiritual companionship and accompany people on their journey.
To achieve that, she offered, “I think we need to look at different models in the 21st century.
“For example, the model of just coming to a class is not really enough anymore,” she said. “We have families who can’t always fit into the models that we’ve had for decades, so we have to look for new and exciting ways to educate.”
In making the joint announcement of her appointment with Bridgeport Bishop Frank J. Caggiano last October, Archbishop Blair said the position of provost grew out of the archdiocese’s pastoral planning process and its overall effort to strengthen and expand organizational effectiveness, efficiency and responsiveness to the changing needs of the parishes, schools, clergy and faith.
Sister Mary Grace acknowledged those needs. “I think Catholic education has its challenges, and a lot has to do with the culture we’re living in and financial constraints,” she said.
“However, there are many models springing up around the country in schools and parishes of excellent, creative programs,” she noted. “And there are a lot of individuals coming forward to support efforts in Catholic schools and catechetical programs,” such as foundations and universities that are partnering with dioceses.
“I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “There are many good programs out there that archdioceses and dioceses can tap into.”
Still, she acknowledged that the church has its challenges. The Catholic Church “has a long history of educating our young people in the faith,” she said. ”But I think in this 21st century, we have some very particular needs that we have to consider,” such as families who don’t practice their faith yet believe in Catholic schools enough to enroll their children in them.
“Our call as Catholic educators is to first of all form our teachers and our administrators in the faith,” she said, as well as parents “who need to be formed in the faith.”
A native of New Haven, Sister Mary Grace and her three siblings attended St. Aedan School in the Westville area. After graduating from Sacred Heart Academy (where her niece is now a senior), she entered the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has education as its primary apostolate.
Her sibling, Sister Anne Walsh, is the superior of the congregation’s United States Province, also in Hamden.