Anne Carroll builds her school of dreams

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Spend time in the halls of Seton School in Manassas and you will get to know Anne Carroll. For the past 42 years, she has acted as founder, director, teacher and even adopted mother to hundreds of students and teachers she has come to know. She has worked with her staff to create a challenging academic curriculum that fully integrates Catholic teaching into every subject.

For the love of teaching

"You don’t shove religion down people throats, but you are helping to form their minds so they can think logically and clearly." Anne Carroll

It’s hard to believe with her impressive history in education that it was not her first career choice.

“I wanted to be a sports writer,” said Anne, her laugh bouncing off the walls of her classroom where she teaches history and senior theology. She was born and raised on her family farm in Colorado, the eldest of Vernon and Marie Westhoff’s eight children. Anne traded her dream of covering sports for educating young minds while attending Loretto Heights College in Denver. She graduated in 1963 with a degree in English and minors in education and social studies, before earning a master’s in English from New York University in 1964. 

She taught at an all-girls junior high school and later at an all-girls college before marrying her husband, Warren Carroll, the future founder of Christendom College in Front Royal. 

“The chance of our ever meeting and getting mar­ried were nill,” said Anne. “He was 10 years older than I and grew up in Maine, I was in Colorado. He grew up in a very intellectual family and I didn’t. He was a deist and I was a strong Catholic. So how in the world did two such people get together?”

For Anne, she believes it was divine providence. She recalled how the young Warren decided to attend law school only to learn he had missed the enrollment deadline for the fall semester. According to Anne, the only school in the country that took mid-year admissions was the University of Colorado, one of the many “coincidences” that led to their meeting, courtship and marriage.

That first year saw changes for the newlyweds. Warren had joined the staff of California Sen. John G. Schmitz, which required them to move twice a year. Anne was forced to give up teaching, and she missed it terribly. She loved seeing the students grow in knowledge and in virtue. She loved being challenged by them, building relationships with them and seeing the marvels that God could do in their hearts and minds.

Her spirits were raised, however, by her husband’s sudden conversion to Catholicism a year into their marriage. The lifelong deist’s change of heart was a blessing that would change the course of their lives and countless others.  

Back in the saddle

Six years later, an opportunity to get back in the classroom arose in a way she never imagined. The couple had moved to Manassas and started working for a Catholic magazine called Triumph. The magazine wanted to start a high school in response to the secular culture in schools throughout the country. The call went out for a leader, and Anne volunteered to take the helm.

“I had never built anything before in my life, so it was all uncharted waters,” she said.

While the magazine folded two years later, Anne, another full-time teacher and a handful of students found a home in Manassas.

With Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington and Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria out of range and homeschooling not popular at the time, the school would fill a void for both Catholic and non-Catholic families who wanted to avoid public schools. 

Despite having no assets, Anne wanted a school with a gym, science lab, comfortable classroom space, and at the heart of it all, she wanted a chapel. 

A priest said, “You will need a million dollars.” The frugal farm girl, who never spent a dime more than she had to, thought about the $300 in the school’s account.  She said “close enough,” and kept going.

“That is when I really opened Seton School,” Anne said. She started renting classroom space for her 16 students at an Episcopal church. It was around the time of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization in 1975, which provided the school with a name and a patroness.

In 1980, she secured a loan to purchase land for the school, despite their nonexistent assets. The Diocese of Arlington gave them a $10,000 loan to make their first mortgage payment. Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh became good friends with the Carrolls and celebrated Mass frequently at Seton.  

“That was something that really gave us the confidence to do this,” said Anne.

That same year, she started a homeschooling program as an offshoot after a military mom expressed her disappointment that her children could not attend the school. Today the program is a self-sufficient, separate organization from Seton School that serves families nationwide.

 ‘Math is God’s favorite subject’

Instead of worrying about the architecture of the building, Anne and her staff focused on building an integrated Catholic curriculum. She worked with her husband to write two history textbooks, Christ and the Americas and  Christ the King: Lord of History. She later wrote a religion textbook for her senior class called Building a Civilization of Love. To this day, many of her graduates still use the religion book in college and to defend the faith in the workplace.

While it is not hard to see how the Catholic faith could be integrated into English, history and language arts, many people wondered how she could manage to integrate the faith in math and science. 

“My math teacher will tell you that math is God’s favorite subject because of absolute truth,” said Anne with a smile. “Obviously you are not making it two nuns plus six nuns equal how many nuns? You don’t shove religion down people throats, but you are helping to form their minds so they can think logically and clearly and not be led astray by all the lies that are out there. That is what math does. It helps you train your mind.” 

While the school stayed small, its reputation grew, and more people heard about the little school that could. 

Arming the next generation

Fast forward to today and Seton School, now more than just a dream, is at capacity with 350 students —  many children of alumni. 

Anne has her classrooms, science lab, gym, even her chapel. But one of the things she is most proud of is the school’s community.

“It is very much a family. If there is a sickness or death, the community just rallies around,” she said. “I remember when my husband died, I had to do nothing. Everything was taken care of, and it is like that for everybody. It is so edifying to work in a place like this.”

Anne encourages her teachers to ask themselves, “Are you helping the students love God more? You have to try to help them develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You have to give them opportunities to grow closer to Christ. That is the key,” she said. “You can give them all the knowledge in the world, and they can know every proof for the existence of God and every name of every social encyclical, but if they don’t have a relationship with God what is going to hit them out there is going to be very difficult to combat.”

While the school has come a long way, Anne sees the work as far from done. The school evolves constantly to prepare students for the challenges they will face after Seton.

“When I think of the moral issues I had to cover with my religion 12 seniors 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, the questions we have to wrestle with now are so different,” said Anne. “They are immersed in this culture and they need to be armored against it.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017