Andrew Youngblood understands how one might be surprised to learn that a Catholic high school based in the American Midwest and offering an education in the classical liberal arts could establish a branch in the Arabic-speaking, largely Islamic Middle East.
But such a school is about to open this September, part of the local Catholic Church’s efforts to recover from years of struggle, particularly under the Islamic State persecution.
The Chesterton Academy of Saint Thomas the Apostle is set to launch in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where thousands of Christians took refuge in 2014 after ISIS overran Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. The academy is a collaborative effort of the Minnesota-based Chesterton Schools Network, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil, and Franciscan University of Steubenville.
The Chesterton Schools Network said the new school — its third outside the US and its first in the Middle East — is named after St. Thomas the Apostle, who first evangelized the area, and has been a dream of Archbishop Warda’s since he first learned of the Chesterton Academy Classical model of education.
Youngblood, who serves as director for curriculum and instruction for the Chesterton Network, explained that a missionary teacher from Baylor University had been working in Iraq learned about the Chesterton model and informed Archbishop Warda about it.
“Our executive director then had some conversations with Archbishop Warda,” Youngblood said in an interview. “He’s a very mesmerizing and visionary leader. He got us all excited about the prospect of having our school in Iraq.”
The new high school, which will enroll some 40 students at first, will be based at the Mar Qardakh International School, a K-12 school Archbishop Warda started a few years ago.
In an email exchange with Aleteia, Archbishop Warda said he was attracted to the Chesterton model because of “their combination of academic rigor and emphasis on the Catholic tradition.”
“As I learn more about the curriculum and the network of schools, I see how beautifully the Chesterton Academy program fits the needs of St. Thomas the Apostle High School at Mar Qardakh International School: not only their emphasis on joy, but the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ throughout the curriculum, the community, and the network,” the archbishop said. “This is why, even though we come from different backgrounds and have such a wide variety of experiences, Chesterton is a perfect fit — we are all united in our common desire to fall more and more in love with Jesus Christ. That is what I want for the students of Mar Qardakh and for all the people of my diocese.”
Dale Ahlquist, who has for years been promoting the writings of G.K. Chesterton, opened the first Chesterton Academy in 2007 in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The Chesterton curriculum, which is now used in 30 schools, immerses students in subjects from Homer to Latin to music theory.
Youngblood said that the Chaldean Catholic education system in Iraq “has a surprisingly Western orientation.” The Mar Qardakh School has been using the International Baccalaureate program, “which is heavily Anglocentric.”
“So it’s not a wild leap to go from there to the Chesterton curriculum,” he said. “The bigger leap is the International Baccalaureate program is heavily secular, very UN-based. So it’s not so much the Western culture as the Catholic identity that is being brought in that they already had a sense of present in the curriculum.”
Hala Warda, headmistress of the Mar Qardakh School, told Aleteia by email that Iraq’s educational system “has been deteriorating over the last 20 years and it is important for our future to develop the educational system, preventing it from collapsing.” A native of Iraq, Warda, who is not related to Archbishop Warda, grew up in San Diego and recently earned two master’s degrees from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, one in business administration and another in education administration.
In May, Archbishop Warda received an honorary doctorate from Steubenville for his advocacy and outstanding service to Iraqis suffering from persecution. Two years earlier, he and Fr. David Pivonka, TOR, president of the university, signed a memorandum of understanding that includes cultural exchanges and the development of programs between Franciscan and the Catholic University of Erbil, which Warda founded in 2015.
Steubenville partnered with Aid to the Church in Need USA to establish the St. Ignatius of Antioch Scholarship for students native to the Middle East to study at Franciscan University. With the support and guidance of Archbishop Warda, the goal of this scholarship is to form and educate students from these persecuted regions, students who will then return to their homeland to become leaders dedicated to the renewal of Christian life in this region.
As well, students from Franciscan will be participating in the new school in Erbil, which is located in the largely Christian section of Ankawa.
“We will have missionary teachers from Steubenville teaching the Chesterton curriculum, alongside local teachers from Ankawa, and they will be running a K-12 school,” Youngblood said.
“We have an intense collaboration with Hala Warda, the principal, and Archbishop Warda, who is such a visionary leader, and with Franciscan University of Steubenville,” Youngblood said. “All these players have been put together really by God’s hand. What is emerging is really overwhelming and beautiful to see.”