Small new 'Classical' Catholic school unlike any other

by Len Lear
Posted 10/19/23

Christopher Roberts is often asked why in the world he would open a new Catholic school in the Northwest Philadelphia region.  He has answers.

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Small new 'Classical' Catholic school unlike any other


Christopher Roberts is often asked why in the world he would open a new Catholic school in the Northwest Philadelphia region. 

“Haven't Catholic schools been closing? they ask,” Roberts told us recently. “Why would we need another one?”

Roberts, who spent five years teaching ethics at Villanova University, answers with a story about a young man, and friend, who was graduating from a local Catholic High School many years ago.

“He went to both his biology teacher and theology teacher and asked their opinions about Charles Darwin and evolution. Both told him they could not answer,” Roberts said. “That is unacceptable to me. We must be ready for all questions. Faith and reason are the two wings of a dove.”

Meanwhile, Roberts said, his Catholic friend and canon lawyer Adam Dickerson was noticing a similar thing, and asking similar questions. 

“He was working with Catholic couples who were getting their marriages annulled,” Roberts said. “If they were formed in Catholic spirituality, why was that not bearing more fruit?”

They both came to the conclusion that too many students didn’t really understand their Catholic faith. 

“And if you don’t understand it, you will not live it,” Roberts said.

So they decided to take action. In 2017, Roberts and Dickerson co-founded Martin Saints Classical High School, a private, independent Catholic school that emphasizes the intellectual roots of a classical education.

Roberts, who grew up in Baltimore, converted to Catholicism at age 36. He holds a doctorate degree in theology and is a permanent Deacon at Our Mother of Consolation Parish in Chestnut Hill. He is president of Martin Saints and chairman of the board. Dickerson is headmaster. 

The curriculum is based on a classical liberal tradition, emphasizing intellectual curiosity and integrating with Catholic theology throughout. Nearly all the teachers have advanced degrees. The cost per student is $11,000 a year, and half of the current students receive financial aid. 

The “classical” curriculum, in which ninth graders read Plato, Homer, Aristotle, Euclid, and Virgil, is rigorous and challenging. In subsequent years they read early English classics such as “The Canterbury Tales” and medieval history. Moving toward the modern period, they read Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, Dostoevsky and Chesterton.

“We honor the students' intellectual dignity,” Roberts explained. “We read the Great Books to have the right conversations.”

And in this time of increasing political divides, Roberts said, the school is steadfastly non-partisan. 

“We are not conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics here. We are just Catholics,” he said. “We should be politically homeless. We are the third way. In fact, not everyone here is Catholic. We have had people come here because of the Great Books and the liberal arts.”

The first year’s class consisted of just 11 ninth-graders. 

“We had held an open house,” said Roberts. “It took a special parent to step off the mainstream, but we have a very appealing 10 to 1 teacher/student ratio, and each student is a big fish in a small pond.”

Each year the co-founders added a grade, and now there are 57 students in all four high school grades. 

It has just recently graduated its third class, and is seeking to double enrollment within the next five years. 

Thus far, the school has been located on the second floor of Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Oreland. But starting next year it will double its space by moving to St. Titus parish at 3006 Keenwood Road in East Norriton, which is partnered with St. Helena's parish in Blue Bell.

“It has more than twice the classroom space, a larger and brighter cafeteria and event room, playing fields and plenty of parking - along with several acres and outbuildings,” Roberts said. 

It is not all work and no play for students at Martin Saints. They start each year with a camping trip to the Poconos, for example, to have fun and make friends. At least once a month there is a field trip. 

“To reach teens, we get them into God's creation, and do things like go canoeing, experience nature, sunsets, and beauty. God speaks in nature,” Roberts said. 

There is also a strong emphasis on the arts. Students take trips to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art and go to the ballet. Every student learns cooking, woodworking, fiber arts and craftsmanship. 

There is also a strong service component. All students volunteer to help their community, whether it’s at a soup kitchen, or homeless shelter, or an assisted living facility. 

“It is essential to engage in the world,” said Roberts. “You're more than just your mind. We don't want the students to be couch potatoes or cell phone zombies.”

Roberts, a Chestnut Hill resident for the last 18 years who was once a research assistant for Bill Moyers, describes the school as the “hardest but also the best thing I have ever done.”

He met his wife Hannah when both were theology students at Oxford University in England. Together, they have four daughters: Martha, 18, a student at George Mason University; Ruth, 15, a sophomore at Martin Saints; Sarah, 12, and Miriam, 8, who are both home-schooled. 

Hannah and a friend, Betsy Puntel, are co-authors of the book, “A Child's Book of the Mass."

Martin Saints will be holding an admissions open house on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. RSVPs and details at Len Lear can be reached at