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Father Damian marks 50 years at DeMatha Catholic High School, ‘this little corner of God’s vineyard’

This year, Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski marked his 50th year teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. The all-boys’ Catholic high school founded in 1946 is sponsored by the Trinitarians. This July, Father Damian marks his 60th anniversary as a Trinitarian. (Photo by Andrew Travers, courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School)

Like other area Catholic schools, DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, has received its share of national and local honors. The all-boys’ school sponsored by the Trinitarians was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 1984 and again in 1991. The school’s Wind Ensemble has won many national awards, and its teams in basketball, football and other sports have gained many championships.

In April, a longtime teacher there gained another national honor for the school. Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski, who was marking his 50th year of teaching at DeMatha, received the 2024 Lifetime Commitment to Catholic Education Award from the National Catholic Educational Association during its convention in Pittsburgh. The award recognizes individuals who over a career have advanced the mission of Catholic education. Over the years, he has taught accounting and theology at DeMatha.

And on July 5, Father Damian will mark the 60th anniversary of his entering the Trinitarian community.

For the 78-year-old priest who grew up surrounded by family members in Baltimore, becoming a part of the family of the Trinitarians’ religious order and being part of the DeMatha Catholic High School family was “a natural fit,” he said in an interview.

“DeMatha is a tight-knit family. We talk about brotherhood and how we are there to help each other,” he said.

Before he received the NCEA award this spring, DeMatha hosted an open house honoring the priest for his 50 years of service there. More than 200 students, graduates, parents and staff members lined up for hours to personally congratulate and thank him.

“I consider all of this a blessing, I really do,” Father Damian said.

The priest, noting that he was not a particularly good student in elementary school or high school but did well in college, said during his formation as a Trinitarian, he was sent to school to learn accounting and thought that would be his role in the religious order.

“I did not ever envision being in a classroom (teaching),” said Father Damian, who arrived at DeMatha as a religious brother in 1968 and initially taught typing and worked in the dean’s office and in the attendance office. “… God moves in mysterious ways. He places us in different situations. This is where he wanted me, and I hope, I trust that how I have performed my ministry here over these past 50 years as a priest and as a teacher has been a benefit and a blessing to those that I’ve had in front of me and maybe somehow showed the love and the compassion of the Lord to them.”

Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski, who this year marked his 50th year teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, teaches accounting at the all-boys’ Catholic high school. (Photo courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School)
Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski, who this year marked his 50th year teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, teaches accounting at the all-boys’ Catholic high school. (Photo courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School)

Father Damian and his younger sister grew up in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. Over the years, their father worked for the city of Baltimore as a fireman on a boat in the harbor, and their mother worked for the American Can Company.

“Both of my parents were very hard working. Family and faith were important,” he said. Their home parish, St. Casimir’s, was staffed by the Conventual Franciscans, and the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph staffed their parish elementary school. “(It was) about as Polish as you could possibly get,” he said.

His father had eight brothers and sisters. “My father’s parents lived across the street from us. You had this whole family atmosphere,” he said, recalling a childhood where his grandparents, aunts and uncles were part of the fabric of his life. “You definitely had that good Polish food, without a doubt.”

His mother was a Ukrainian Rite Catholic, and her mother in Pennsylvania also had eight brothers and sisters, whom the future priest’s family would see at various times of the year. “That was a nice, rich heritage,” he said, reflecting on his family roots.

After graduating from high school in 1964, he looked at different religious communities and decided to entered the Trinitarians, drawn by “their charism and what they did. They had parishes, they did prison work, they ran DeMatha Catholic High School, the only school we have. It was the broad ministry they had, and also their community life.”

In 1968 when then-Brother Damian was assigned to DeMatha, that was also the year when John Moylan became the school’s first lay principal and the first lay principal at a Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Washington. Thirteen Trinitarians then staffed the school, serving in various roles including as rector and teaching English, theology, math and history.

Moylan, who died in 2021, served as the school’s principal for 32 years until he retired in 2000.

“He had a vision for Catholic education,” said Father Damian, noting how Moylan started the school’s music program, established a computer curriculum there, and instituted numerous honors and Advanced Placement classes. Moylan led DeMatha through a period of great expansion in its academic programs, extracurricular activities, student enrollment and facilities.

“We have built on that vision,” Father Damian said, also praising the leadership of Dr. Daniel McMahon, a DeMatha graduate and faculty member who succeeded Moylan as principal.

Another key figure in DeMatha’s history whom Father Damian worked with was Morgan Wootten, who from 1956 to 2002 served as the school’s head basketball coach and was a world history teacher there. Wootten’s basketball teams at DeMatha won 1,274 games, five national high school championships, 22 city titles and 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships, and in 2000, he became the first high school coach inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Father Damian gave the homily at Coach Wootten’s Funeral Mass in 2020.

“Both Morgan and John were men of deep faith,” the priest said in his interview, noting how that shaped their work at the school and their interactions with students, and with fellow teachers and parents. “…It was a pleasure to work with both of those men and to be invited into their homes and their families.”

He noted how Moylan emphasized that DeMatha’s coaches were teachers, in the classroom and on the athletic fields and basketball courts. “You’re going to learn something about life. How do you accept victory? How do you accept defeat?” the priest said.

In his years at DeMatha, Father Damian has served as the moderator for the athletic department, and in that role as a chaplain, he celebrated Masses for the football and basketball teams. “Wherever the basketball team went, I went with them,” said the priest, who accompanied the team to games in California, North Carolina, France and Japan. “I did Masses in hotel rooms. I went to every single game. It was a great experience,” he said.

Father Damian’s 50 years at DeMatha were not consecutive. In 1975, then-Brother Damian left to study for the priesthood, after he felt called to provide sacramental ministry to the students he was teaching. After being ordained to the priesthood in 1979, Father Damian returned to DeMatha to serve as a chaplain and teach theology and accounting. In 1985-86, he again left the school, this time to serve as the pastor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and he returned to DeMatha afterward.

For more than two decades, Father Damian has served as a weekend priest at St. Mary of the Mills Parish in Laurel, Maryland. “They make my weekend,” he said of the parishioners there.

Father Damian emphasized that a key part of his DeMatha experience has been building relationships with students and fellow teachers. The NCEA’s announcement of the priest’s Lifetime Commitment to Catholic Education Award noted that during his 50 years at DeMatha, “he has officiated at countless weddings, performed numerous baptisms and presided at myriad funerals – no Trinitarian has served so many alumni and their families at times of joy, at times of welcome and at times of sorrow.”

In an article in DeMatha’s Red and Blue Review publication, Daniel McMahon, the school’s principal, praised the priest, saying, “Perhaps no person at DeMatha is a better example of accompanying people on their journey.”

Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski, who this year marked his 50th year teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, visits with students outside the school. (Photo courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School)
Trinitarian Father Damian Anuszewski, who this year marked his 50th year teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, visits with students outside the school. (Photo courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School)

Father Damian said he feels honored when graduates or students’ families ask him to perform sacraments for them. “I feel very privileged to do this for them,” he said. “…To journey with anyone is a privilege.”

The priest said that in his 50 years at DeMatha, he hoped students felt he was someone they could talk with if they needed advice or wanted to share something about what they were going through. “You never really know what will touch a young man, what will make an impact on a young man, on those faces looking at you from their side of the desk,” he said.

He noted how DeMatha’s principal has an exit interview with each graduating senior. “I laugh at some of the things that they say, and it’s humbling as well,” Father Damian said. “I remember one young man who wrote the following, he said, ‘Father can be a person you can trust.’ That’s nice… and he’s not Catholic,” the priest added with a hearty laugh.

Trinitarian Father James Day, DeMatha’s president, in a statement praised Father Damian for “his zeal, his caring heart, and his love for the ministry of Catholic education.”

“Father Damian always has the ability to create an environment where the student and his family quickly come to know how much they are valued in his class,” he said.

In his talk at DeMatha’s open house this spring honoring him, Father Damian thanked parents for entrusting their sons to the school.

“All on this campus are aware of the sacred responsibility we have in the education ministry,” he said. “The students bring life to this campus. Without them, it is just a place with five buildings. Our student body is a very diverse group of young men, (from) different nationalities, creeds, races, economic levels, learning abilities, different counties in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virgina. For some, their commute can be an hour and a half.”

The priest added, “We celebrate with them, we laugh, rejoice, correct, cry, encourage, love and journey with them. They can frustrate you, may disappoint you, but they can surprise you and make you very proud.”

Father Damian – one of 77 Trinitarians to serve at DeMatha over the years – in his interview praised the school’s founders.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of those Trinitarians who started the school on Sept. 9, 1946. They were willing to follow the promptings of the Spirit and take a chance,” he said. “Originally the school was founded as a minor seminary high school, that was the intent. Families in the community found out we were going to do this. They came, knocked on our door, and said, ‘Would you accept our sons?’ and here it is.”

DeMatha, which began in 1946 with 18 students in the basement of the Trinitarians’ monastery in Hyattsville, now serves more than 800 students.

Father Damian opened his talk at the open house by noting, “DeMatha Catholic High School, this little corner of God’s vineyard, right here in beautiful downtown Hyattsville, has been an important part of my journey as a Trinitarian.” The priest said that DeMatha is a jewel of the Trinitarians’ ministry, and he said his service there has been an honor and a privilege.

“The people of DeMatha are the reason I return,” Father Damian said. “The faculty, staff and administration, the women and men whom I have had the privilege to work with over these 50 years, they bring dedication, energy, compassion, love, patience, understanding, gifts and talents to this vocation of Catholic education, thus enriching all on this campus.”

The priest noted how a wall at DeMatha has plaques honoring 70 faculty and staff who have served at the school for 20 years or more, and 25 of them, including him, continue to serve there.

Students walk past that wall every day, and a couple of years ago, a senior jokingly teased Father Damian, noting how he had started working at DeMatha in 1968. “You know Father, that makes you a dinosaur!” the student said. Father Damian responded, “There is a difference between me and a dinosaur – I am not extinct.”

This past school year, Father Damian taught two accounting classes and supervised two study halls at DeMatha, and he will be returning to the classroom there for the upcoming 2024-25 school year. As for the future, he said, “My hope is to still be here, whatever it is that the administration would like me to do.”

The priest who this year marked his 50th year at DeMatha and is marking his 60th year as a Trinitarian, said those years “have been for me, a time of blessings, and at times, challenges, and that’s fine… The people that I’ve come in contact with over these 60 years, and working here over these 50 years, all of this has been a blessing to me. Because of their support, their prayers, their love, I’m still here, enjoying what I’m doing.”

And Father Damian added, “It’s been lots of fun.”