Advancing the Mission

Story by Kap Stann


De Marillac Middle School, one of the newest Lasallian schools in the country, opened in 2001 in the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, right next door to Saint Anthony's soup kitchen. To get there, you wind your way through crowds of people accustomed to staking out territory on public sidewalks - sleeping, engaging in conversation and commerce, smoking marijuana, waiting for doors to open to a hot meal or medical care.

Entering De Marillac's schoolyard, with its lively brood of middle schoolers in khakis and navy sweaters playing ball in the sunken courtyard of the cheery yellow church, doors open to another future. Dean of Mission and Faculty Development at Saint Mary's College Carole Swain, who helped found the tuition-free school co-sponsored by the Christian Brothers and the Daughters of Charity, helps shape that future.

Charged with advancing the mission of Saint John Baptist de La Salle on campus and throughout the San Francisco District of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Dean Swain is on the board at De Marillac and several other Lasallian schools in the area. To her, De Marillac represents a "convergence."

Here she places fellows from the Lasallian Educators Network, an intern program she established in 2001, along with Lasallian Volunteers to staff the school. As liaison between the school and the College, she offers needed resources, such as curriculum development support from the School of Education, or student volunteers through the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA). And during De La Salle Week on the Saint Mary's campus, an event coordinated by Swain's office to commemorate the founder, De Marillac students are transported from the Tenderloin to Moraga for the annual Carnival 4 Kids.

At the carnival this past April, wearing a booster's T-shirt reading"Let Us Remember" and surrounded by giddy, face-painted children encountering the ambling 10-foot mascot Gael Force One, Dean Swain abandons the customary professional reserve and is alight with joy. Not just about this day, but in anticipation of the day years from now when, she predicts, these children of the Tenderloin return to campus, as college freshmen.

"She has the vision," says Brother John O'Neill, FSC, who has been instrumental in Swain's formation as a pioneering lay leader. Now nationally known for her work with the Christian Brothers, Swain was among the 10 lay partners invited to attend the historic 1999 district chapter meeting that was opened to non-Brothers for the first time. She continues to break new ground: A member of the Mission Council, she will represent the Brothers at an upcoming Lasallian education assembly in Utah this November.

"If she weren't coordinating all this work for the Lasallian mission here, I can't imagine what Brother would be," says Brother John. "We like to think she was the Brother assigned here, and it didn't come from the president of Saint Mary's or from the district office; it came from a higher authority."

De La Salle certainly lent an inspiring hand as he instructed, "Be convinced that you will never achieve your salvation more surely nor acquire greater perfection than by fulfilling well the duties of your profession, provided you do so with the view of God's will."

To hear Swain tell it, "I love what I do. It is me. So when people ask me about my work, I give them a very strange response. I just say, it is who I am."

Around campus, even with her leadership position and national stature, she is simply Carole.

Carole was raised in Modesto by college professor parents, for whom"education was their religion, because it is irrevocable and offers hope for a life of possibilities." Traveling cross-country to visit family back East, the family of five would make stops to visit colleges and universities along the route, much like travelers across Europe make pilgrimages to churches and cathedrals.

That a child raised this way would come to serve a brotherhood that believes that salvation springs from education on the one hand may not seem like much of a stretch. Yet for a layperson, a woman raised 'potluck' Protestant, to become a steward of the mission for a 300-year-old Roman Catholic order has taken a spiritual journey of "fairy tale adventures into unknown dark forests," from the Philippines to Africa, El Paso and Juarez, to the Tenderloin so close to home.

At UC Berkeley for 21 years, first as a student, then a teacher, Carole earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology in 1975. That same year, she converted to Catholicism, and was confirmed at the Newman Center in Berkeley. "It was certainly an act of individuation," says the psychologist, "but I didn't regard it as rebellion, just my relationship with God. It was hard on my family, but they came to see how beautiful the pathway has been for me. When my brother visited me at Saint Mary's, he said, 'Now I can see why you're a Catholic.'"

Carole tells the story of her first visit to campus in 1988. It was Sunday, and a bishop was leading a procession from the chapel as she happened by. "His eyes claimed me," she relates. "It was like coming home." As it turns out, he was Bishop John Cummins of the Cummins Catholic Institute for Thought, Culture, and Action.

Shortly thereafter Carole joined the faculty of the Saint Mary's School of Education. As the new professor was trying to find her bearings and become more connected to campus, Brother John recommended that she try teaching seminar. "Seminar meant involving students in the whole process of learning in a way I hadn't known before I arrived at Saint Mary's," says Carole. "In seminar we have a special opportunity to witness the quiet students listening, listening, and then, they find their voice. It's almost magical."

In 1991, Brother John arranged for Swain to spend a month at the University of Saint La Salle in the Philippines. Commissioned at Mass in the chapel as a "kind of missionary," she took off for the island of Negros, around 300 miles south of Manila. On a 10-acre campus of mango, breadfruit, and papaya trees in Bacolod City, Saint La Salle extends from grade school through graduate school, as many schools do there. ("It creates very loyal alumni," notes Brother John.)

She lived with the Saint La Salle Brothers' community, going upstairs in the morning to join nine Brothers for morning prayers and early breakfast, then off to school. At night she returned for dinner, to socialize, and for evening prayers. She started out observing education classes at the university, and then teachers from other departments invited her to their classrooms. Then came requests from teachers in the high school, then the grade school. She ended up experiencing all levels of the institution.

"She fell in love with the Filipinos and the Lasallian tradition there," says Brother Camillus Chavez, FSC, professor of psychology, who commended Carole for a Lasallian Award in 1999. "It's different from the U.S.; they were part of the family. It opened her up to see the Brothers' work as a worldwide mission. Converted to the mission, she just took off."

"I came away with a sense of fullness, a renewal of faith, and a dedication to Lasallian community life," Carole related upon her return. "Living in community with the Brothers, a community that wasn't always complaining about what they didn't have but celebrating what they did have and moving forward. I came back with a newfound zeal and commitment to building community at the College."

"When she came back she was looking with new eyes," says Brother John, recounting how she started studying Lasallian literature, enrolled in the Buttimer Institute, and became active on local Lasallian school boards. "It wasn't long before the Brothers saw how correctly she understood and how well she coordinated different aspects of Lasallian goals and objectives. It was like having another Brother in the community."

In 1999, according to Brother John, the Brothers at Saint Mary's College and the District of San Francisco agreed to jointly sponsor a special assistant to the president position to implement actions decided upon at the Brothers' chapter meetings, and Carole was named to the post. In 2003, the position was elevated to dean, and faculty development was added to the title, which was a natural fit with the Lasallian educational mission.

"My career has been dedicated to creating healthy environments within which individuals may grow, and that communion is modeled by the Brothers as they 'together and by association' dedicate their lives to teaching," says Carole. "We're trying to recreate that structure for the lay faculty here, to find that same support among our colleagues."

"For De La Salle's charism to continue, it will take the work of more than the Brothers alone," says Brother Camillus. "What's more important than the Brothers is the Lasallian mission. We need to educate and train the laity to catch the spirit." To that end, he says Carole is a"Godsend," citing her many initiatives to inculcate the mission, from"Soup and Substance" readings to the pipelines she has built for Lasallian-trained students and teachers."Brothers are basically humble, and have learned not to toot our own horn. Carole toots our horn for us.

To Brother John, Carole is like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom: "You know, when he steps off into the abyss, and miraculously a bridge appears under his feet? The person of faith does step forward where there's no footing, and by taking the step creates the bridge. That's what Carole has done."

What would De La Salle do?

  • To read more about De La Salle's life and work, see Brother Luke Salm's The Work is Yours: The Life of Saint John Baptist de La Salle (Christian Brothers Publications, 1989).
  • Saint Mary's College deploys more Lasallian Volunteers than any other institution in the U.S. For more information, see, find Volunteers, Tenderloin.
  • You can sponsor a student's Christian Brothers education through De Marillac Middle School, Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School, and Saint Mary's College, and raise a family out of the Tenderloin. Call Brother Stan Sobczyk at (925) 631-4219.