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Turn to Jesus (Article)

To Live for Souls
Valerie McGovern’s mission in the OAK academies.

Valerie McGovern with Overbrook girl
Valerie McGovern with a student in the lobby of Overbrook Academy.

By Mary Houser

When Valerie McGovern’s phone rings, she never knows who will be on the other end.  After working in Regnum Christi schools for 27 years, she knows more people than most of us will meet in our lifetime- and many of them still contact her, especially when they need advice from a friend they can trust.  It is not unusual for Valerie to receive calls or emails from students she knew 10, 15, or even 20 years ago.  Sometimes they call just to share some good news, but many of them call for advice in critical situations because they know they can trust “Miss Valerie.” 

Beginning in 1983 in her hometown of Dublin, Ireland, Valerie McGovern has worked in half a dozen Regnum Christi schools in Spain, Mexico, Ireland, and the United States.  Nineteen of those years have been spent in international boarding academies and it is her students from “the academies” that call her most often. Why? Because the year students spend in a boarding academy is an unforgettable and life-changing experience, and in tough moments, they go back to it.

The Oak International Academies

The international boarding academies are one of the best-kept secrets of Regnum Christi apostolates in the United
Overbrook staff and kids
Valerie McGovern with a group of Overbrook students, Regnum Christi coworkers, and consecrated women who work at the academy.
States- and one of the most life-changing.  Of the seven language academies run by Regnum Christi, four are in the United States: Overbrook Academy for girls in Warwick, RI; Oaklawn Academy for boys in Edgerton, WI, and Everest Academy boarding program for boys and girls in Detroit, MI.  Overbrook and Oaklawn both have about 150 students, while Everest Academy’s 2 programs each have about 20 boarders who attend school with the day students of Everest Academy. 

Students usually come to an academy for one year in order to learn English by immersion in an English-speaking environment.  But this is just a small part of what they learn, for the academy’s real goal is the same as that of every Regnum Christi school: integral formation.  All of the academy’s activities are geared toward this goal: from classes to recreational “clinics” such as soccer, oil painting, jazz and many more; from monthly virtue campaigns to etiquette training; from fun weekend outings to daily mass, and annual trips to Rome and Canada, it all comes together to help the students grow. 

In Valerie’s words, “The girls’ academy is an environment where we can form the women of tomorrow’s generation.”

Mother, sister, friend

Within the girls’ academies, the consecrated women play a pivotal role.  As formation instructors they oversee the formation given to the students.   Valerie describes the role of the consecrated women as “formative and instrumental: formative, because we are there to form the students; instrumental, because we are sent by God and he is the one who works through us.”  In other words, “I try to be a spiritual mother, a sister, a teacher, and a friend.”

If you ask Valerie what her mission as a formator boils down to on a day-to-day basis, she does not list off the dozens of meetings, phone calls, emails, and paperwork which make up a good part of her daily schedule.  Instead, she sums up her daily tasks in a few words: “to live for the souls.  That’s what it’s all about.” 

Valerie says that one thing she loves about working in boarding academies is the amount of time spent with the students. “In the academy we are able to be with the students many hours of each day: leading their morning prayers, during mass, at meals, in free time and on outings… It gives us a chance to get to know each student very well.  Since we get to know students in many aspects of their lives, our work to form virtues is much more effective.” 

“It’s one thing to work in a normal school and only see the students during the school day; it’s another to work in an academy and see them day and night, week after week.”  For Valerie, “being with the students so often is a grace, because it gives us a real chance to experience the transformation that takes place in their personal lives, as well as in the lives of their family members, thanks to all the means of formation they’re offered.”
Humble beginnings

The academies started off very humbly.  Valerie remembers her first year in 1983 back in Dublin- when the “academy” consisted of two students!  She filled the roles of teacher, formator, administrator, chauffeur, and cook.  From those early foundation days she has seen the academies grow to well-established institutions with a tradition of excellence. 

“From humble beginnings in Ireland I have seen the academies grow and prosper. I’ve witnessed the great work God has done and continues to do through them," she said.

A life-changing experience

With over a hundred students passing through the academy each year, Valerie has seen countless transformations, both large and small, take place in students.  When asked what makes the year at the academies so life-changing, Valerie points to the many means of formation the students have at their disposal, highlighting several in particular.

“It is easy for girls who have been raised in a Catholic environment to say that they love the Church and that Jesus is their friend.  It is quite another thing for them to be deeply convinced of it.” 

Valerie says that after the annual pilgrimage to Rome, the students come back full of deep love for the Holy Father and the Church.  “There’s something about being in St. Peter’s Square with all their Overbrook friends, cheering their hearts out for the pope, that stays with them.”

“When you ask what their favorite part of Rome was, they don’t say shopping or sightseeing.  It’s always seeing the Holy Father that they remember the most.  Many of them say that when they heard him speak, it was like hearing Jesus speak.”

Valerie says that for her as a consecrated woman, one of the most remarkable moments of the year is Holy Week.  It is a moment to marvel at the work God does in the students’ souls.  “The students celebrate Holy Week in silence and prayer, which is a first for most of them.  During those days of Christ’s passion, they come to realize that he is a true friend who will accompany them always.  It is a deep spiritual experience which stays with them years later.”

During the year at the academy the students also grow in their appreciation for the dignity of the human person.  Small groups of students wake up early almost every Saturday to go pray outside a local abortion clinic.

“For the girls this is an unforgettable eye-opening experience. It shocks them to see young women only a little older than them going to end the life of their children.” On the way home they discuss what they thought and felt.  “They are so moved that they often declare they will never consider doing such a thing, should the situation arise. They always knew abortion was wrong, but coming to such close contact with it for themselves reinforces their conviction of the value of life.”

And just as friendship is central in any teenager’s life, it is also central in an academy.  The friendships they form are true and lasting.  Years after their return home, the students, often from different cities and even countries, continue keeping in touch.

A life changed

Although the majority of the students go home changed for the better, some stories stand out.  Valerie tells the story of one girl several years ago who had not been baptized when she came to the academy. “Her family was Catholic when she was born, but decided to let her choose her own religion later on.  By the time she reached her teens, her parents had fallen away from the faith.”

“When she came to Overbrook and experienced the beauty of the faith firsthand, she wanted it for herself.  With the full support of her family, she decided to get baptized.” Within a couple of weeks she received four sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, and Reconciliation. 

“God was the one who worked in her soul to bring her to himself.  But it was wonderful to think that he used our work at the academy to bring this soul to know him.  That’s what our lives are about.”

Spending so many years dedicated to such a hidden apostolate could seem tiring, but Valerie says it has been worth it.  “It would be worth it for only one soul, but the fact is He has let me see many, many souls touched by his hand working through my poor efforts.  We are only instruments. It is God who works.”

“Every morning I renew my consecration to him.  My life is to serve God in whatever way he wants and to bring many souls to him.” And the academies have given her a marvelous way to do just that: “to live for souls.”

Valerie McGovern was one of the first consecrated women of Regnum Christi from Ireland. She has worked in Dublin, Madrid, Mexico, and Detroit.  She is currently Assistant Directress of Overbrook Academy in Warwick, RI.



Related links

Official web site of the Vatican.
Legionaries of Christ
For Your Vocation
Mater Ecclesaie College

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