Mormons at Catholic schools? Protestants at a Jewish school? It's common in Utah
Education • They like the academics, the diversity and the values.
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On a recent morning, Waverly Merrill woke before dawn to attend Mormon seminary.

She then trudged a short distance in the snow for the rest of her classes at a seemingly unlikely destination: Juan Diego Catholic High School.

"I like being in a religious school," said Merrill, a senior at the Draper school and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I'm not Catholic, but we all still pray to the same God."

Merrill is far from alone in Utah. It's quite common throughout the state for students to attend religious schools even though they don't belong to the schools' religions.

About a quarter of the more than 5,400 students enrolled in Utah's Catholic schools are not Catholic. Roughly half the students at Grace Lutheran School in Sandy are not Lutheran. And about 80 percent of students at The McGillis School in Salt Lake City — which doesn't teach religion classes but does honor Jewish traditions and values — are not Jewish.

It's a choice Utah parents and students make for a number of reasons.

Some favor religious schools for their academics. Others value their sometimes diverse student bodies. Many like the idea of their children learning values alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, even if those beliefs differ somewhat from the ones they hear from the pulpits of their own churches.

"Parents have told us they want students to have values alongside their education," said Molly Dumas, director of advancement at Juan Diego. "If they are studying biology, they want there to be the ethical discussion about stem-cell use, not just the biological parts. They want those family values, those Christian values we provide."

Interfaith values • On a recent day at Juan Diego, juniors in Nicole Veltri's theology class walked to the front, one by one, to give presentations about their family traditions.

It was part of a wider look at the importance of traditions and rituals. Students often shared nonreligious practices within their homes.

One student talked about riding roller coasters with her family. Another explained how his family eats halibut or ribs each Christmas Eve in honor of its Norwegian heritage. Yet another discussed his family's Christmas morning breakfast casserole, which he described as "pure wicked awesomeness."

For many parents and students, especially those who are not Catholic, this is what they come to the school for: discussions on the importance of family, traditions and values, in general.

Lindon resident Lynelle Williams said that was among the reasons she chose Juan Diego for her four children, even though her family is LDS.

"The values that are taught within the school, it's just very Christlike," said Williams, who began working as the school's student life coordinator after enrolling her children there. "It's very refreshing to be able to say a prayer and speak of God freely, to be able to say the 'Hallelujah' Chorus."

Plus, Williams grew up outside Mormon-dominated Utah, accustomed to being a religious minority. She thought the experience might benefit her children as well.

She believes being part of a religious minority at Juan Diego has strengthened her children's LDS faith. At school, they find themselves sometimes explaining their religion to curious peers and correcting misconceptions, whereas in many other Utah schools they'd be surrounded by kids who held the same beliefs as they.

"It's nice to be outside of the circle, looking into your faith, and be able to gain a testimony … and not rely on everyone else to form that testimony or conviction," said Williams, whose eldest son went on a two-year LDS mission to Uruguay.

Dumas said up to about 20 percent of Juan Diego's students are Mormon. The school also has served Muslim students as well as classmates of other Christian denominations.

They're also attracted by the school's academics. Utah's three Catholic high schools boast a graduation rate of 98 percent, Dumas said, and a college-going rate of 96 percent.

When it comes to non-Catholic students, the schools aren't interested in converting the kids to Catholicism, said Juan Diego Principal Galey Colosimo, but rather strengthening their faith overall.

"Our goal is to help a family make a student more faith-filled in whatever faith they happen to practice," Colosimo said. "If you're a Mormon, we want you to be a better Mormon. If you're Episcopalian, we want you to be a better Episcopalian."

Utah Catholic schools also teach students the importance of working with people of other faiths to improve the world together, Dumas said. This week, for Catholic Schools Week, students from Utah's Catholic schools engaged in a number of interfaith charitable activities, such as canning applesauce and packaging food at the LDS Church's Welfare Square.

Keeping an open mind • Diversity was also high on the list of reasons Williams selected Juan Diego for her children.

"Diversity and love for all," she said, "was something we wanted our children to find out about."

Her youngest son, Nick Williams, a freshman who also treks from LDS seminary to Juan Diego each morning before school, said he feels accepted at Juan Diego.

"No one treats me any differently," he said.

Diversity was a major reason Kathleen Toth chose The McGillis School, though her family is Protestant.

In the search for the right school for her kids, Toth visited public, private and parochial schools up and down the Wasatch Front. She sat in on classes. She compiled her findings and listed the pros and cons of each school into a spreadsheet.

The Salt Lake City mother of three didn't find the best school for her family until she walked into McGillis. She liked the school's focus on values, individuality and community. She also appreciated its emphasis on Jewish culture and ethics.

"We live in a very homogenous community in terms of religion, ethnicity, even politics," said Toth, now chairwoman-elect of the school's board of trustees. "[McGillis] was a diverse place, and I thought, 'What a unique opportunity. You get to grow up in a beautiful environment in Utah and have a global school experience … so that when they go out into the world and it doesn't look exactly like it does in Utah, they're going to be ready for it.' "

Kathleen Juhlin, who is Episcopalian, feels the same way about McGillis. Her son is a sixth-grader at the school, and the Salt Lake City woman heads the parent association.

She wanted her kids to grow up with an open mind about people of other faiths. In addition to imparting lessons about Jewish values and traditions, McGillis also teaches kids about other world religions, inviting members of other faith communities into classes to share their beliefs.

"We have an opportunity to educate our kids to be more able to go out into the world," Juhlin said, "and not hold someone's religion against them."

Juhlin has two older children attending Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, and she'll likely send her younger son there as well when he advances from McGillis, which is K-8.

Sallie Warmath, assistant head of school at McGillis, said every year a handful of McGillis graduates move on to Utah's Catholic high schools.

"They're actually quite comfortable in that environment," Warmath said. "They know a lot about a lot of religions, and they feel comfortable questioning and comfortable letting people know what they believe."

Another community • Some parents say sending their children to a school that honors faith traditions other than their own has enriched not only their kids' lives but also those of their families.

Toth's family members have embraced a number of Jewish traditions at home, putting their own spin on them. They now put up a menorah by their Christmas tree each year, and though they don't say Hanukkah prayers, they talk to their children about themes of the holiday such as persecution and miracles. They also celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat, a new year for trees, by hiking up Red Butte Canyon.

"What a wonderful, glorious old tradition to stop and celebrate the trees," Toth said. "Without McGillis, I would never have known about it."

Bob Brodbeck, who sent his Presbyterian kids to Grace Lutheran School, said being part of another faith's school has helped his family through rough times. About half the 162 students at the school aren't Lutheran, said Jacob Rogers, Grace Lutheran principal.

Brodbeck picked the school because he wanted his sons to understand Christian teachings, but also to form their own opinions.

"I basically just wanted to have my kids hear and see something other than what I spew at them every day," he said.

Through the years, the Sandy father added, the school community has been there for his family. He felt the full strength of that group when he lost his wife to cancer about a year and a half ago.

"They rallied around us and really pulled us through," Brodbeck said. "They've just been very understanding and very nurturing, and not just to my kids either, but to me.

"It's like having a second faith community."

lschencker@sltrib.com