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How Vermont Catholic schools have changed

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Mass is part of the routine at Rice Memorial High School. But the way it's celebrated has changed quite a bit since the Catholic school opened its South Burlington campus in 1959.

"Rice Memorial High School is not a monastery, it's not a convent," said Monsignor Bernard Bourgeois, the principal.

Today the music is a more upbeat and the readings come with an international twist!

"I am really excited for this mass because it is in different languages, and I love hearing different languages," student Gemma Cirignano said.

Things are different in the classroom too.

"I think most people believe if you go to a Catholic school, you are Catholic," student Allison Hatch said.

Fifty years ago the student body was almost entirely Catholic; today, 65 percent identify with the religion.

"You don't have to be Catholic to come here and you don't have to necessarily be Catholic to fit in," Hatch said.

Principal Bourgeois says the mix is a good thing.

"The more diversity you have in the building, the better off you are," he said.

And while religious education is still at the core of the ninth through 12th grade curriculum, that has evolved as well.

"I think we see formation and faith today through a different lens," Bourgeois said.

Students continue to study Catholicism and scripture, but classes in social justice, world religions, morality and art and spirituality are also on the schedule.

"I love it," Cirignano said. "I am a really open-minded Catholic."

Marty Burt has been teaching at Rice for a decade, helping students navigate their faith.

"I don't think students now just accept anything someone says. I think they want to engage with it more," Burt said.

Today, these 400 students are encouraged to ask questions.

"There are no rulers here. We're not doing that anymore, that does not happen here," Bourgeois said.

"I think it is important to consider all different types of beliefs, and considering one's personal beliefs in comparison to the ones around you," Hatch said.

Those conversations come on the watch of a predominantly lay faculty. In 1959 almost all of Rice's teachers were part of a religious order, now just two priests work here.

"Over the years as the church has changed and as religious life has shifted, there have been fewer and fewer who have stayed here," Bourgeois explained.

For Burt it's been a plus.

"If I were teaching in the 60s, I wouldn't have been in the classroom unless I was a religious. And now as a lay person I can do that," she said.

Rice's students say there's a lot they can do, too, that may not have once been an option.

"Within such a small school there are just so many different directions you can go in," Cirignano said.

Today the school offers eight advanced placement classes.

"I like Rice because it is a very challenging academic environment and there is a great sense of community," Hatch said.

It backs a dominant sports program and supports campus ministry and community service efforts that help students put into practice what they've learned.

"You see the gratitude in people's faces and it makes you want to do more community service," Cirignano said.

Bourgeois says Rice remains committed to its Catholic roots, but admits with a student body about one-third the size it was when it first opened, it must be open to growth if it's going to continue to educate kids.

"It needs to be the best it can be at its programs," he said, "and it needs to continue to attract families to its doors."

Rice officials say running the school has become more expensive without a staff made up of priests and nuns. The school is looking to build its financial reserves and is in the process of launching a capital campaign.

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