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Sacred Heart Cathedral: Students from China at the crossroads

May 15, 2015
Father Robert Carbonneau, CP

This is the third in a series of articles on the mission church in China, highlighting historic and current work by clergy, religious and laity from the San Francisco area. Passionist Father Robert Carbonneau, who is executive director, of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau in Berkeley and resides with the De LaSalle Christian Brothers at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, suggested the series “to encourage San Francisco Catholics to learn about and respect the contribution of Chinese Catholic identity.” Previous articles ran in the March 6 and April 3 issues.

When you find yourself sitting in your car at the red traffic light at the crossroads of Gough and Ellis streets by St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, take the opportunity to watch classmates at the urban campus of Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep trudge between buildings. That Asians constitute 31.2 percent of the high school’s 1,280-member student body coincides with the 2010 San Francisco census that identifies a total Asian population of 33.3 percent. This comparable fact is a reminder of the rich diversity that underlies contemporary San Francisco archdiocesan Catholic secondary education.

Presently, archdiocesan high schools mirror the national trend, which has Catholic schools entering into a relationship to teach a small cohort of students from the People’s Republic of China. SHC hosts six. Archbishop Riordan and Junipero Serra educate 34 and 13 respectively. At this time, Marin Catholic has no mainland students.

Due in part to the Catholic missionary effort to China, history shows that throughout the 20th century, students from China matriculated in numerous American Catholic colleges and high schools. In 2014 a total of 275,000 Chinese students came to the U.S. The Institute of International Education stated this was 31 percent of the total number and consequently the largest sending country.

Currently, Catholic high schools recruit on their own or via professional companies. Chinese parents seek out American Catholic high schools because of their stability, inclusiveness and tradition of excellence. In turn, students from diverse Chinese provinces now at SHC stated they wished to become more proficient in English and develop creative learning skills unavailable in many parts of China and prepare for college. Insight gained from host families, teachers and classmates has motivated these students to face new cultural challenges and appreciate the pulse of American life. One student proudly admitted that he and his friend decided to start a Chinese Club wherein they both share confidence beyond the routine of day to day study and reflecting on their international experience.

Lunchtime proctor De LaSalle Brother Martin DeMartini has found conversations with the Chinese students quite engaging. Admitting he asks as many questions as they do, he now reads China news with greater awareness. He believes their presence at SHC coincides with the educational mission of the LaSallian Christian Brothers and Daughters of Charity – the latter having sent missionaries to China for decades.

The six Chinese SHC students look to their teachers and international student advisors such as Angie Pfahnl to assist them in balancing issues of day to day life. Their teenage encounters with housing, homework, diet, cultural socialization and distance from home parallel their classmates. Pfahnl seeks to engender respect for their Chinese voice without diluting standard pedagogical and religious principles. Unquestionable is her belief that international students offer and share in the life-giving pulse of the changing world in and beyond SHC.

So next time you are stopped in traffic at Gough and Ellis, ponder the growing rapport between San Francisco Catholic high schools and students from mainland China.

Visit the U.S. Catholic China Bureau at www.uscatholicchina.org. Email Father Carbonneau at director@uscatholicchina.org.

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