Last year, in the midst of Covid, San Francisco’s only classical Catholic school, Stella Maris Academy, opened at the city’s Star of the Sea parish. There has been a school at Star of the Sea since 1909, but disagreements between some parents and the pastor, Father Joseph Illo, about the meaning and content of Catholic education, caused the school to suspend classes for two years and reopen as a classical academy in 2021.


Stella Maris currently educates 47 students. The head of the school is Gavin Colvert, a native San Franciscan who earned his Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Toronto. Colvert shares Father Illo’s awareness of the absolute necessity for a Catholic approach to Catholic education. Colvert says, “A simple expression: college is too late. We have a tremendous impact on young people in the elementary and high school years and it’s too late if we begin to form character and the moral imagination, and the mind for success, in college.

“Our school offers an integrated classical curriculum. It is the first Catholic parochial school with this sort of curriculum in San Francisco as far as we know.  We are a full partner with the Archdiocese of San Francisco, working within the framework of the department of Catholic Schools. Our teachers are well-trained in the classical liberal arts and are all joyful Catholics eager to share their knowledge and faith with their students.  We have small classes with lots of individual attention for students.  Students study Latin formally from grade three and up, and informally before that through prayer and song.  We have a speech and debate program integrated into the curriculum for students in grades five-eight. Students attend Mass weekly with their classmates and we have daily prayer in the morning, at lunch, and in the afternoon before dismissal.”

In a recent video released by the school, teachers described giving students “…a classical grounding in beauty and goodness that has resonance throughout the ages.”  Another mentioned the teaching of Latin, and said, “part of our curriculum is to go to Mass every Friday, and that’s where students hear words that are part of our vocabulary.”

Colvert: “There are so many things I could say about the great outcomes happening at Stella Maris Academy in our first year.  Perhaps the most important thing to say is that we have a close-knit community of supportive parents and students who are joyful and happy each day about learning.  What you see in the video is really ‘what you get’ if you come to campus.  A hallmark of classical education is the nurturing of wonder, not mere curiosity.  We stimulate students’ curiosity when we use a strategy to catch their attention about something that may or may not be interesting to them intrinsically.  We develop wonder when students become engaged with the intrinsic interest of what they are learning. Only if they are deeply engaged with the subject matter will they have the resilience needed to tolerate frustration and overcome struggle, both of which are essential to genuine academic growth and excellence.”

In the school video, a parent made the observation “If we’re going to send our children to a Catholic school doesn’t it make sense that the school actually teaches about the Catholic faith and practices the Catholic faith?”

Another said: “I’ve never seen my children better.”

And another: “I have never seen my daughter so happy before as I have in these last few months as she has attended Stella Maris Academy.”

Colvert: “We hope to have 65 or more students in the fall.  We are currently operating in the Star of Sea grammar school “annex” portion of the elementary school building.  This smaller part of the building housed the kindergarten, school library, and music rooms in the former school.  Next fall we will be returning to the larger Star of the Sea School main building, which will provide both more space and more facilities for expanding our programs in the arts, science, and a larger library.”

To learn more, visit the Stella Maris website. To help support Catholic education in San Francisco, go here.

Story by Gibbons Cooney.