Social justice comes alive at Visitation School

| Christina Capecchi | February 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

The Catholic call to social justice presents a thrilling adventure, and when presented the right way, teenagers embrace it wholeheartedly.


That’s the idea behind a unique teaching method pioneered by the head of the religion department at the Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights. She says the model helps students connect to their Catholic faith, provides an important tool for critical thinking and reveals teenagers’ remarkable capacity for compassion.

Tricia Menzhuber, 33, a mother of two and a member of Holy Trinity in South St. Paul, has been teaching at Visitation for nine years. She considers her original approach to teaching the church’s social teachings a “hybrid,” influenced by her varied experiences and education, including Notre Dame, the University of St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota, St. John Vianney School in South St. Paul and a number of archdiocesan groups.

To begin, Menzhuber’s bridged the longstanding dichotomy between works of service — like visiting a nursing home — and works of justice — like trying to affect change — combining them into what she calls Christian action. Then she modified the pastoral model traditionally taught to church employees — see, judge, act — that is, recognize injustice, determine how to fix it and then go about the business of making it right.

Menzhuber broke the process into more steps, expressed in fresher language: awareness, reflection, analysis, action and evaluation. The aim is similar to the old pastoral model, she said, but this method can lead to a more thoughtful process, from beginning to end.

She also structured her class differently, asking students to complete their service projects earlier in the semester so they can discuss and process them together. This marked a change she was itching to implement, having taught countless confirmation classes where service hours were due at the end of the program.

Change in attitudes

Using this approach has brought about a shift in attitudes about service, Menzhuber said: from an obligation to a privilege. “We do service because that’s who we are, it’s what we pledge to do in this world. The students get that,” she said.

One of those students is senior Elizabeth Weir, a member of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul “I’ve been stretching myself to get more involved,” Weir said. “These experiences have allowed me to connect to my faith and to connect with God through service.”

Weir recently had a meaningful encounter with a 99-year-old woman at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, where the 17-year-old volunteers. “She is thinking about converting to Catholicism and I sat with her for about half an hour and talked with her about why I am Catholic and why I decided to be confirmed, and my experience with prayer,” Weir said.

Social justice is integrated into every religion class at Visitation, Menzhuber said. The sophomores currently enrolled in New Testament, for instance, are performing four hours of works of mercy as they reflect on chapter 25 of Matthew.

Last October, the diocese of Lansing, Mich., asked Menzhuber to share her teaching method at a conference for Catholic school teachers and directors of religious education. Her presentation was well received, eliciting emails the next day from teachers who had already begun using her technique.

Getting to the core

“Trish has a well-earned reputation for understanding and articulating the church’s teachings on social justice,” said Renee Genereux, director of Visitation’s Upper School. “Everyone on the faculty and in the student body has a great appreciation for her generosity and expertise.”

Menzhuber supervises one of Visitation’s four active social justice clubs. It is raising funds to increase access to clean water in Cameroon this year. Boosting awareness about homelessness was one of its previous missions.

Sister Mary Paula McCarthy, one of the Visitation nuns in Mendota Heights, commends Menzhuber’s work. “Both the church and our Visitation founders proclaim social justice as one of our essential teachings,” she said. “Trish is aware of these mandates and encourages response to them effectively with her students.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week