Matthew Najera’s Story:
In the summer of 2013, my wife Judith and I were looking at options for our eldest son’s secondary education. High on our priority list was that the school have a strong Catholic identity and ethos on the campus. We found this at Saint Augustine Academy in Ventura, which featured both a strong Catholic identity and a rigorous classical curriculum. Unfortunately for us, we discovered that the academy had a waiting list. After much discussion and prayer, we decided to see if there would be enough families and financial support in Santa Barbara to start a school of our own following the Saint Augustine model. We met with various like-minded families and began to get the ball rolling. Not surprisingly, a major snag was finding an affordable facility to house the school in pricey Santa Barbara. We eventually found an ideal site at the Goleta Valley Community Center and signed a lease in July of 2014. Having been the former Goleta Union School it had all the amenities one could dream of in a school: from an auditorium to tennis courts.
The original name for the school was generically “Santa Barbara Classical Academy.” This changed when we concluded that the school needed a patron saint and our school might not end up in Santa Barbara proper. We gave our chaplain Steve Montross a hat with about 20 saint names in it, which he prayed over and pulled out the name of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Famous for her “little way” of demonstrating love in the ordinary and patroness of missionaries, Saint Thérèse turned out to be providential for the eventual path of our academy. As we continued to get the word out about our fledgling academy, we discovered a clamor from many middle to low income Catholic families whose only option for education was public education. And for many of these families, their experience with older children in public school was one of disappointment and despair. In short order, we discovered that our “little way” was to be an affordable alternative for parents who wanted their Christian values supported by the faculty and peers with whom they interact for the majority of the day. As a coalition of families, the parents of Saint Thérèse assumed the role of primary educators of our children and of the school. Nevertheless, there was also an outpouring of support by the local community both in talent and finances. In our first year, we were supported by eight teachers most of who worked pro bono. As we complete year two, it is hard not to miss how the Holy Spirit has been working in our little academy in ways both big and small. Speaking for all who have been involved in the founding of St. Thérèse, it’s been a pleasure to see God’s transforming power at work in the lives of these young people.
Chris Van Wyk’s story:
My involvement with the academy began with two distinct events. The first took place as I was taking a course as part of a Masters in Theology Program from the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Dr. Scott Hahn, the instructor of the course, opined about the lack of vocations or apostolates among the post-graduate theology students. Here they were, filling up their spiritual tanks and soaking in the rays of theological sunshine- and for what? To bask in their spiritual high? Waiting to be hit over the head by an audible voice from God and rouse them to action? His challenge hit me right between the eyes. Of course my domestic duties of being a husband and father were my priorities- but that is where my Christian witness ended- in practice at least.
During this time my wife Iris and I were attending a Mass on a Wednesday morning when her father – Dr. Augusto Castaneda, arrived at church bursting with enthusiasm about a dream he recently dreamt. He dreamt that Matt Najera and I would or should get together and begin an apostolate in service of the New Evangelization. He was very encouraging and passionate about me pursuing some ministry in the Church.
These were the two initial “callings” that led me to pray for direction and discernment about where God might be calling me to serve. Of course, I first turned to my wife, and then Matt Najera to see if he might be interested in beginning a Bible study or some similar ministry. It was during this conversation that Matt brought up the question of where Sofia (my eldest daughter) would be attending High School. Both Matt and I had come to the same unsettling conclusion: our children had no options for High School that we were satisfied with. Matt asked if I might be interested in pursuing the idea with him, and I was happy to oblige. Our families have a long history together both from Church as well as in the local community and we are God-parents to each other’s children.
We began pursuing the grand adventure in prayer. We knew that if this idea was to succeed, it would need to start and be rooted and sustained by prayer. And we believe that principle never changes. We would attend Mass every Saturday morning at the Poor Clares, followed by meetings with a growing number of supporters. Iris and I had a heart to heart about how much time and treasure we were willing to invest in this new school. The more I researched, the more convinced I became of the need for an affordable classical High School that had Christ as its source and summit. And the whole while, it became more evident that this was indeed the vocation to which God had been calling me.
So what began as a simple act of seeking God’s will blossomed into a much grander plan than I could have originally imagined: Opening a door of opportunity for those who previously could not afford a private, classical Christian education. And with each passing day I become increasingly convinced of the beauty and truth of a small classical academy.