2019 Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education: Elias Moo
On Saturday, July 13th Elias Moo received the 2019 Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education at the Alliance for Catholic Education’s commencement ceremony. The award is given annually to two graduates of the ACE Teaching Fellows program who have distinguished themselves by making significant contributions to the ministry of Catholic education; Maura Shea also won the award this year.
Moo was given the award for his service to Catholic schools – first as a teacher, then as a principal, and now as the Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. In honor of Moo’s award, we are rerunning a story about Moo written last year after he was named superintendent.
“My first encounter with Notre Dame was Rudy”.
Elias Moo was at his Oxnard, California, high school’s college fair when his guidance counselor asked if he had gone to the Notre Dame table and what he thought of them. Moo answered, “Yeah, I did. I don’t really remember the conversation. I remember getting some packets from them, but I don’t even know where Notre Dame is.” She asked, “You’ve never heard of Notre Dame? Have you ever seen the movie Rudy?” After Elias answered “no” to both questions, his counselor told him, “I have a homework assignment for you. We’ll talk more about Notre Dame tomorrow, tonight you go home and watch the movie Rudy.”
Although Elias does not attribute his decision to go to Notre Dame to watching Rudy, it was Elias’ introduction to a life he had never envisioned for himself. Watching Rudy began Elias’ journey to the University of Notre Dame, to the Alliance for Catholic Education, to St. Rose of Lima in Denver, Colorado, where he served as teacher and principal, and now to his newly appointed position as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Denver.
“That speaks to the little bubble I used to live in where you have this Catholic boy, son of immigrants, who had never heard of one of the most beautiful and greatest universities in the country,” says Elias. His parents were extremely faithful Catholics and very involved in their local parish. They decided early on that the greatest inheritance they could leave their children was a Catholic education. His parents viewed it not as a means toward upward mobility, but as a great liberator. They wanted their children to be free to come to know, love, and serve God.
Valedictorian of his senior class and the first in his family to attend college, Elias felt a great deal of pressure to stay close to home, but as he and his family learned more about Notre Dame and vibrant Catholic identity, they realized what an opportunity he had. Although his mother wanted Elias to stay close to them in California, she told him, “If there’s one place that I would be comfortable with you going it would be to Our Lady’s University.”
At Notre Dame, far from home and experiencing a bit of culture shock, Elias struggled to hold onto faithfulness. “I found myself going back and forth between, ‘Who am I and what am I?’ Feeling lost and lonely, he found his footing and voice in the Notre Dame community. Campus Ministry was his great refuge. He joined Latino student groups, became a sacristan in Knott Hall, and got involved in the Center for Social Concerns. At Notre Dame he found a supportive home and made the faith his own.
As Moo neared graduation, he continued discerning his spiritual journey. Elias received guidance from leaders in the ACE program, but he was unsure if Catholic education really needed his talents or if he should follow another path. His mother encouraged him, “Don’t go to where you’re comfortable. Go to where you’re needed.”
Elias took a leap of faith. “When I was accepted to be a part of ACE and arrived at St. Rose of Lima, I was by no means a complete and refined man, but I had some additional foundations,” he says. “So, becoming a Catholic school teacher, I really see coming to Denver and joining ACE as one of the most significant and providential moments in my life.”
In the first year, through the difficulties and the struggles, Elias says he heard God saying, “I need more than what you’ve been giving me up to this point in your life. Here’s the opportunity I’m giving you to be the man I need you to be for me and for the church.”
The summer after graduation, Elias joined other ACE 14 Teaching Fellows on campus. “It was tremendous. It really put me on fire for what Catholic education was all about,” Elias says. “I felt really energized and ready to step into the school, my community, and the classroom.”
Once in Denver, idealism eventually came face-to-face with reality, and Elias, who is still great friends with his first ACE community, credits the structure of ACE for supporting him through moments of doubt. “The community aspect of ACE was so instrumental in my ability to persevere and be successful,” he said. “There’s such solace in knowing you’re not alone”
Elias continued to discern God’s call. “Joining ACE was a response to a call, staying on for a third year at St. Rose of Lima was a response to a call, and eventually accepting the position of principal there was also a response to a call.” Through the dedication of Elias and the community at St. Rose of Lima, the school is not only still open but thriving. In an area that includes five of the lowest-rated schools in Colorado, St. Rose is a tremendous success story of resilience showing what happens when individuals come together, committed to the Church and Catholic education.
The next step in Elias’ calling is to expand that Catholic community by serving the nearly 9,000 students in 34 elementary and two high schools as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Denver. Catholic schools across the country are facing many of the same challenges: declining enrollment, financial difficulties, aging buildings. Elias is up for the challenge and sees his Notre Dame and ACE experiences as integral to his past and future success.
“The global vision I have is the direct result of my formation and learning through ACE and the Mary Ann Remick Leadership program,” he says. Elias wants to be a beacon of hope and a shining example of what Catholic education should be able to offer society. He wants to help schools boldly and unabashedly stand with Christ, proclaiming a vision for the human person that defies what the modern world might have.
“Our best days are not behind us,” Elias says. “Rather, our (Catholic) schools are needed now more than ever.”