It’s a sophomore this time, but over the course of the next 41 minutes another two students will drift through the theology center echoing the same question. This happens a lot. I should know; I’m always in here during my free block, and sometimes I’m even being productive (sometimes). Ms. Vona, the recipient of these inquiries—the mints in question are in a big glass jar on her desk—always makes time for these solicitors, who’ve probably just finished their Twizzlers from Mrs. O’Connor’s daily Wuzzle (I suspect this free candy pilgrimage ends with cough drops from the nurse’s office). It’s an example too mundane to be taken seriously, unless you go to a school that rewards virtue in the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” Then, maybe giving out mints isn’t so insignificant; maybe it’s praxis.
For Ms. Vona, the spirit of giving is an innate impulse rather than just a practiced habit. Not yet a year out of grad school, she found herself an elementary school behavioral therapist, working one-on-one with a young socially-challenged student. She admits it was a “very intense job,” and recognized then that her master’s in theology might be put to better use than her mental health degree. So, after a year, she transitioned to a teaching position in the theology department at Xaverian Brothers High School—a self-described “baby-teacher” among those with legacies of 30-plus years at the school. As Ms. Vona remarks, many of these teachers have retired over the course of her own impressive 11 years of teaching at Xaverian. It’s just one of the many changes she’s seen during her time as a teacher; others include Mr. Lalli and Brother Dan’s departure from the school, the respective installment of Dr. Conca and Mr. Nicholson as head of school and principal, and the formation of the Francis Xavier Division, which she immediately embraced into her pedagogical repertoire: “In my time here, I have taught theology for grades 7, 8, and 9, and two levels for grade 11.”
Like all of Xaverian’s faculty members, Ms. Vona displays an immense devotion to the subject she teaches; when prompted, she gladly begins an explanation of her theological mission. “The title they give to Catholic social teaching is ‘the best kept secret of the church,’” she says, pantomiming the scare quotes with her fingers, “but when you really think about what Jesus was doing—and if everything Jesus says and does is something that we’re supposed to pay attention to—a big chunk of that is helping the people on the margins of society, the ones whose dignity has been stripped from them.”
It’s refreshing, then, to see Ms. Vona put the doctrine she teaches into use. As one of the founding moderators of Xaverian’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), she and co-moderator, Ms. Briody, covered topics ranging from compassion for military service members and veterans to discussions about stress, mental illness, and depression in young men. More recently, Ms. Vona has undertaken the task of co-moderating Without Xception, along with Mr. Jim Conley, Director of Campus Ministry. This club serves as an on-campus resource for LGBTQ students and allies. “It’s been very specific for me to choose to work with SADD and to develop Without Xception,” Ms. Vona remarks. “Those are non-negotiable aspects of our community that need to be included in conversation and treated with respect.” She continues: “It’s not just what you say [that matters], it’s what you do, right? Put your money where your mouth is. It’s not enough for me to just be standing up in a classroom saying, ‘We need to do things for people who are marginalized and not treated fairly,’ I need to actually do what I’m talking about.”
Xaverian prides itself on a certain set of core values, among them the virtue of compassion. Compassion: the spiritual companion of empathy, derived not from pity but from a recognition of the dignity inherent in every person. The goal of Xaverian, above academics and athletics, is to raise young men to live up to these values. With crucial models of character in our community like Ms. Vona, that mission becomes infinitely more attainable.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of the Xaverian Magazine.
A private, Catholic, college preparatory day school for boys in grades 7-12. The Boston area prep school offers a rigorous academic curriculum, a well-developed campus ministry program focused on faith, character, and leadership, and a proud athletic tradition featuring competitive Division 1 high school athletics in the Catholic Conference.