“I went to a Montessori school during my preschool years,” recalls Elizabeth Trojack (’06). “When I was four years old I told my teacher that I was going to be a Montessori teacher when I grew up.” That prediction was soon forgotten as Miss Trojack, like most children, contemplated a wide range of potential careers — including author and chef — but it would come true nonetheless. Today she is not only a Montessori teacher, but at age 30, she is also the foundress and head of the Elizabeth Ann Seton Montessori School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A career in Catholic education was not on her mind when, as a teenager, she was seeking out colleges, or even by the time of her graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 2006. The idea came a couple of years later, prompted by her mother’s retelling of that offhand, childhood remark. “My mom told me the story about when I was little, and she suggested maybe there was something to it,” says Miss Trojack. “That set me on the path to founding Seton. That was the first step.”
Called to California
“When I was discerning what college to go to, I was young, and I had my own mindset,” says Miss Trojack. Perhaps because her older sister, Anne (Schniederjan ’04), was a student at Thomas Aquinas College, Elizabeth was inclined to blaze her own path and go someplace else. “But I believe God had a different plan for me,” she says. While praying at Adoration, she detected an unmistakable call to that Catholic, liberal arts college in California that she had initially forsworn.
More than a decade later, she now understands the why behind that call. “I am so thankful that God led me to Thomas Aquinas College and to meet the people I met, to read the books I read, to learn from the tutors that I studied under,” she notes. “I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today without the tools, the resources, and the critical-thinking skills that the College gave me.”
After graduation she worked briefly in a law firm, and then for two years as the youth and family apostolate coordinator at her home parish in the Twin Cities area. Yet her childhood dream of being an educator still lingered, so much so that when asked — during an interview for a graduate teaching program — what she saw herself doing in five years, Miss Trojack surprised herself with her response: “I would love to start a school.”
In short order, she would undertake the preparation to make that ambition possible. She earned a master’s degree in education at Loyola University in Baltimore and a teaching certificate from the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota, while also undergoing training in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori program for teaching children the Faith. After completing her studies, she taught preschool for one year at the LePort Schools in Southern California before returning to Minnesota with a larger goal in mind.
Starting a School
“Montessori is big on providing for the child’s human nature and focusing on emotional, social, and intellectual development,” says Miss Trojack. “But too often something is missing. What about the child’s religious and moral development?” Although the Montessori Method has its origins in the Faith, at most schools today it has been secularized. Lamenting that there were no Catholic Montessori schools in her area — and that at most Montessori schools tuition was well out of the reach of most families — Miss Trojack decided to found a school of her own.
She began by placing an advertisement in a local newspaper in search of parents interested in Catholic Montessori education. From there followed a meeting at a public library, where Miss Trojack arrived early to set up some informational displays, and then “hoped that someone would show up.”
Only a few did, but that was enough. Other meetings followed, and in the fall of 2011, Elizabeth Ann Seton Montessori School opened its doors in a commercial complex in West St. Paul, alongside a lawnmower-repair shop, an insurance brokerage, and a music store. There were just two students, and Miss Trojack was the lone teacher, but the school quickly grew. By the end of the year, there were 10 students, and by the next year 14, plus a second teacher. Now in its third year, Seton offers both preschool and kindergarten classes, with half- or full-day options, five days a week, at less than half the price of most Montessori schools.
Seton Montessori operates on the same pedagogical model as other Montessori schools, with an emphasis on students’ independence and respecting each child’s natural development. Unlike most Montessori schools, however, it also has a strong catechetical component, maintaining an “Atrium” — a specially designated portion of the classroom with a replica altar, lectern, vestments, and chasubles, all proportioned to children’s sizes. To signify its importance, the Atrium is open to students only one day a week. “Every Friday that area is just packed, and the kids really look forward to it,” says Miss Trojack. “We are trying to provide them with the means to seek their faith, to learn about it and explore it. It is hands-on, active, and through the senses.”
Although now thriving, Seton struggled at first, and getting the school off the ground demanded great sacrifice on the part of its foundress. For the first two years, Miss Trojack took no salary and worked two side jobs, waiting tables and cleaning houses in order to make ends meet. Meanwhile she worked two more jobs at Seton, serving both as teacher and head of school, overseeing all the administrative responsibilities, from property management to insurance to payroll.
“It was worth it,” she says. “To see the children learning, not just how to read and write, but most important, learning the Faith — the Mass, the liturgical colors, the vestments of the priests, the different mysteries — that was worth not having a salary. It gave me energy.”
Above all, though, Miss Trojack credits God — and the many generous souls He has placed in her way — for sustaining both her and Seton through its formative years. “It has all been God’s work,” she says. “All the people, all the support, all the pieces that have come together — it’s all His work.” Most notable among those people are her mother, Mary Jo, who has provided encouragement and professional advice, and her father, John, a lawyer who has helped with the legal side of the school’s operations.
Others include William Faulkner, a Twin Cities entrepreneur and chairman of Seton’s board of directors. “I am glad to support a visionary, an entrepreneur, and an innovator like Elizabeth, because she is truly bringing something unique and extremely worthwhile to our local community,” he says. As the father of two Seton students, he sees firsthand the fruits of her work. “The skills my daughters have developed at Seton are tremendous,” he says. “But more important than that is their growing love for the Faith.”
For spiritual advice, the school turns to another Thomas Aquinas College graduate, Rev. John Paul Erickson (’02), Director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. As the school’s self-styled “priest on the ground,” Fr. Erickson visits periodically to offer students religious instruction. He also works with the board and Miss Trojack “to make certain that the school remains grounded in the Faith,” even as it expands. “Elizabeth is a woman who loves to teach and loves her students,” says Fr. Erickson. “That has been evident in the success of the school, in its attracting more students and, most of all, in the satisfaction of its parents.”
Fr. Erickson finds similarities between the work Miss Trojack is doing at Seton and the studies they both undertook at the College. “Thomas Aquinas College is an institution with a profoundly Catholic culture and a community of friendship that flows from an incarnational faith,” he explains. “I think Elizabeth’s work with the Montessori Method and with Seton is consonant with that experience, builds upon it, and every day is shaped by it.”
“When you are first starting any enterprise, it can be more about just getting work done and ‘herding the cats,’” remarks Mr. Faulkner. “But as the enterprise gets bigger, and you have established the initial success, as well as have clear examples of the benefits of the ‘product’ that you are offering — in this case, the education of our children — you start to look at how to develop the strategy, marketing, and support infrastructure to get that enterprise to the next level.”
So it is with Seton, which is now preparing for further growth and expansion. “Until this point, we have depended entirely on word of mouth to get the word out, but we have just started to develop a more comprehensive outreach program to potential families, benefactors, and the community at large,” says Mr. Faulkner. “There are a number of other exciting things going on as well, and these activities together are helping us develop a significant and growing footprint within our local community. This has led to increased inquiries by interested families and increased philanthropic activity, including the fact that several foundations have invited us to apply for support.”
Until now Seton has offered only preschool classes, but as its first students graduate and move on to kindergarten and beyond, parents have begun inquiring about expansion into the grade-school years. The school’s more immediate goal, however, is to move to a new campus that is, in Fr. Erickson’s words, “architecturally and aesthetically more Catholic,” preferably a stand-alone building. “Seton is still an early-stage effort,” says Mr. Faulkner. “But it is moving along very well, thanks mainly to Elizabeth’s vision, leadership, and dedication.”
Regardless of what happens next for Elizabeth Ann Seton Montessori School, Miss Trojack is eager to let Providence, which has served both her and the school so well, continue to be their guide. “I am open to God’s will,” she says, “whatever that may be.”
“In our classroom discussions, we are responsible for our own education. We have to get our hands dirty, to figure out the material, to let it become part of us and make us better people. That is real learning.”
– Isabella Hsu (’18)
Redondo Beach, California
“Thomas Aquinas College is lending a helpful hand to the Church to fulfill her mission. There is no doubt that this Christian environment that is nurtured here is the main cause why there have been so many responses to the call of God to the priesthood and to the consecrated life in the female and male students of your College.”
– Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski
Congregation for Catholic Education