CHARLESTON — Linda Baranoski, director of religious education at St. Joseph Church in Charleston, made history recently when she graduated with The Sophia Community’s inaugural class.
The Sophia Community is a new program at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, that is specifically designed to serve women engaged in lay ecclesial ministry.
Baranoski said her community started with 10 women, but only four made it through on time to receive their master’s degree in pastoral ministry during commencement exercises May 15. Another three women will finish next year.
She said the three-year program was a difficult but extremely rewarding experience.
“It was a wonderful, grace-filled time in my life,” Baranoski said. “The fact that I have this degree gives me more confidence to do my job, and it opens more opportunities for me.”
She first heard about the program from her close friend Sister Susan Pontz, SSCM, who encouraged her to attend. Baranoski, who is an associate of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, said she was hesitant for several reasons.
Sophia students take one online course each fall and spring semester, but the most intense portion of the program is a month of on-campus coursework bracketed by assignments that must be completed before and after each summer session.
Baranoski said she wasn’t sure she was up for the challenge academically or emotionally. As a mother and grandmother, she would be the oldest in the group, and would suffer the stress and loneliness of being away from her family for a month.
While she was discerning what to do, she received three signs in one week that she was supposed to be part of the Sophia program, Baranoski said.
First, she received the book “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” from a friend, which contains elements at the heart of the Sophia program. Then she discovered that a priest she was acquainted with was an Oblate, which is the order that runs the school.
The final sign came during a visit to Mepkin Abbey when she realized the Luce family, who donated the land to the monks, was also the sponsor of the Sophia scholarship.
“It was a real struggle to leave my home and family. But living on campus was a big part of the whole process,” she said, explaining that her community took classes together, went to Mass every day, studied and found time to socialize.
She noted that this type of college living was something she had never experienced. Baranoski had attended the College of Charleston and earned a bachelor’s degree in French. In fact, she was in school at the same time as three of her sons and graduated with one of them. But she only attended classes and was not part of campus life, she said.
With The Sophia Community, she formed a deep bond with the other women. When they were not on campus together, they took live, online courses that allowed them to interact with one another and the professors.
Baranoski credits her husband Tom for being an inspiration and a huge supporter. She said she first caught the bug for more education when they attended his diaconate classes.
Deacon Baranoski is now at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
She said watching him serve at the altar made her want to be a bigger part of the church community.
Baranoski added that classes at the Oblate University taught her that women have a valuable place in the church and that they are needed. Part of that lesson comes from the outpouring of support from church members and priests, she said.
In particular she mentioned Msgr. Joseph R. Roth, Father Gabriel J. Smith of St. Joseph Church, Father David A. Runnion of the Cathedral, and Brother Joseph A. Wahl from The Oratory.
“I grew immensely throughout the three years,” she said. “It was an education, it was an experience, but it was fun! I still can’t believe I did it.”
Baranoski said her husband and daughter attended the graduation to see her hooded by Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the college.
For more information on The Sophia Community Program at the Oblate School of Theology, visit www.ost.edu.