Catholic education is a bit of a family business at St. Catherine of Siena.
Three of its middle school teachers are siblings and children of some of the parish’s original members. Their father, Fernando Ruiz, and his siblings attended the elementary school too.
Today, he caters school lunches, his cousin serves as development director and his wife, Leticia, substitutes in the classroom.
Tepili Ruiz, their youngest daughter, helped with catering until she began teaching science and social studies this year. It’s not the law school path she thought God had planned for her, even after doing well on the entrance exam. Through prayer, Tepili knew she was called to something else.
She realized that, like others in her family, Tepili too was called to teach at a Catholic school. She fell in love with everything about it during the application process. Tepili recalled leading an activity with public school students once and felt limited on how to best encourage them. Praying with them was out of the question.
“It was really difficult being able to talk to students but not being able to talk about God,” Tepili said.
“I love that I can pray before my classes… I can ask God for help to get across what I’m trying to get across,” Tepili said, noting that she can also discern how to bring God into a lesson.
St. Catherine of Siena School
6413 S. Central Ave., Phoenix
Now, she works alongside two of her older siblings who strive daily to pass on the faith. Xochitl Ramirez, the eldest of the teaching trio, is in her 12th year of teaching and her fourth year at St. Catherine. She teaches math and serves as athletic director and data coach.
Ramirez’s brother Teo Ruiz joined the faculty at the same time although neither knew the other was applying. He is the religion coordinator, teaches religion and physical education and advises the student council. Teo sees the faith as the most important thing his students can ever learn.
“I tell my students: ‘This is the purpose of your life,’” he said.
Teo fears that if the faith is not passed on, there won’t be a next generation of Catholics who know about the faith. Teo finds comfort in the students — often siblings and cousins — who do come his way. He knows that educating the child in his classroom also nurtures the soul of the family.
“I’ve had parents say that because of what their kid learned in class, they went back to Confession after many years or back to Mass,” Teo said.
Ramirez, his older sister, agreed that Catholic education helps bring families back to the Church. It also deepens their spiritual knowledge. Ramirez recalled an overall reverence during a recent holy hour with her middle school students.
“They understand the true meaning and what’s happening,” Ramirez said.
Serving youth comes naturally for them. Family members opened one of the state’s first three charter schools in an area prone to violence. While it’s not officially Catholic, they operate with that mindset and set the school calendar around Catholic holidays.
“They realized the way to evangelize was through the children,” Ramirez said.
That’s something her family has done for generations.
“My grandfather always insisted that an education was an important thing,” Teo said, noting that his formal education ended around sixth grade.
The next two generations persevered in their education through high school and some colleges such as Loyola Marymount. Now the teacher trio strives to impart not just knowledge, but peaceful hope that their students and own children can also be successful, regardless of their background.
Ramirez finds assurance in her daughter, a St. Catherine alumna now at St. Mary’s High School. She is starting to develop the viewpoint of a Catholic woman, Ramirez said.
“She notices in herself how life may not be easier, but it’s more pleasant when she views things in a Catholic perspective,” her mother said.
That’s the legacy the Ruiz family has passed on for generations. Teo described his great-great-grandmother as the type who was always seen clutching a rosary.
“Even though we’re not always the perfect family, God was always a part of our life,” Teo said.