Our Kids at Heart: The Evangelizing Power of Catholic Education
Date published: Dec. 14, 2018
“You bring me a letter of acceptance to a Catholic school for your child, and I promise
your child will attend Catholic school.”
This is the promise Father Mark Hamlet, BA ’68 MBA ’70, makes to his congregation
at every Mass. The pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Austin, Hamlet has spent
much of his ministry advocating for Catholic school education through his nonprofit
foundation, Our Kids at Heart.
When this University of Dallas alumnus graduated in 1968, he had no idea he would
follow his alma mater’s mission of promoting Catholic education. On the contrary,
not even the priesthood was on his mind. While he had considered the vocation before
entering UD, he soon learned that God had other plans. After graduating, he married
his wife, Cynthia (Convers), BA ’68, and together they had six children, five of whom
also attended UD. Throughout their 37 years of marriage, they lived in Dallas, Little
Rock, Caracas, Venezuela, Mexico City, Boston, Austin and Giddings, Texas, as Hamlet
pursued a career in international marketing and sales of medical devices. Active and
faithful members of the church throughout their marriage, Cynthia supported her husband
as he was trained for the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Austin and ordained
But after Cynthia passed away from cancer in early 2007, Hamlet began to feel again
the call to the priesthood tugging at his heart.
“Widower deacons cannot remarry, but I had already been married to a wonderful woman
and companion. Marriage was not on my mind,” he said. “When a year had passed, I met
with our bishop and asked him if I was too old. I was 62. Bishop Aymond told me he
had been waiting for me.”
After studying at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston as a transient deacon, Hamlet was
ordained a priest in 2010 at the age of 64. In 2012, he was appointed pastor of Sacred
Heart Catholic Church in Austin.
This newly ordained priest had his work cut out for him. A 90 percent Hispanic population
of mostly undocumented immigrants, high drop-out rates in schools, children using
drugs and alcohol and being challenged to declare gang colors as early as middle school,
teenage mothers turning to Planned Parenthood for support, unmarried couples struggling
to raise families — this was Hamlet’s new parish.
Yet at the root of these struggles Hamlet discerned one essential problem: a lack
of Catholic school education in the community. While the parish had run a school at
one point, it had closed in 2002. By 2012, only seven parish children attended Catholic
schools. The rest attended local public schools, which seemed to provide an environment
detrimental to forming the virtues necessary to combat the struggles of living in
an impoverished neighborhood.
When Hamlet realized this, he began making a simple promise to his parish: If a child
was accepted to a Catholic school, that child would attend Catholic school. “That
was a difficult thing for our congregation to accept,” he said. “Gradually they began
to respond, but it was a hard sell. Catholic school education is not familiar to these
immigrants, who are often poorly educated themselves or even illiterate. Education
is not something they generally value or pursue.”
Yet ultimately the greatest obstacle to Catholic education for these families was
its unaffordability. Even if parents recognized the benefit of such an education in
the faith, they knew that they simply could not pay the tuition bills. But as Hamlet
continued to see their need for Catholic education, he established a nonprofit foundation,
Our Kids at Heart, to provide the necessary assistance. The foundation now provides
tuition support to more than 150 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, partnering
with two Catholic schools local to the Austin area.
As the parish children began attending Catholic school, the benefits of such an education
were greater than Hamlet had previously imagined. “In the beginning, I thought it
was about the children,” he said. “Of course it helps the children, but I came to
learn something that astounded me.”
Quite simply, when the children were educated in the faith and in moral virtue, it
transformed their entire family. When the children came home from school every day
sharing the Bible story they had learned that day or asking their parents to pray
with them, they spread the joy and light of the faith. Upon seeing the evangelizing
power of these little ones, Hamlet gave them a nickname: Pentecost Bombs.
And much like the event of Pentecost, the effects of their evangelization are dramatic:
“The family no longer sees themselves on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder,”
said Hamlet. “A kind of dignity begins to appear with them. Parents begin to want
to get married in the church so they can go to Holy Communion with their children.
Catholic education is the greatest gift we can give to poor immigrants. With the Catholic
education of their children, families grow in faith. Marriages often become stronger
as the entire family is drawn into the mission. It’s not just about the children.
The entire family is richer and stronger. Evangelization is real and transformative.”
As the program continued to grow and succeed over the years, the founding board members
wondered if they might go beyond simple K-12 education, finding a way to connect to
a Catholic university education as well. Hamlet turned to his alma mater for support,
presenting the university leadership with his case. Together they initiated a Memorandum
of Understanding to support these first-generation immigrant children heading for
university degrees, helping the vibrant Pentecost Bombs to become future community
“The University of Dallas connection was an obvious solution,” said Hamlet. “UD has
one of the finest educations in the Southwest United States, and it is more than superficially
Catholic. Also, I attended UD and met my wife there. Five of our six children attended
UD and participated in the Rome Program. I am a huge fan of the Catholic, classical
liberal arts education offered by UD.”
Two of Hamlet’s parishioners, Hector Pinell and Raquel Martinez, are now students
at UD. Without the help of Hamlet and the foundation, they would not be here today.
Pinell, a computer science major, said that he initially did not plan to go to Catholic
high school, much less UD, but he transferred to the local Catholic high school after
his freshman year, thanks to Hamlet’s encouragement. “I wasn’t really interested in
the education, but I decided to try it out because of the work study program they
had,” he said.
When the time came for Pinell to apply to colleges, Hamlet recommended UD. “He said
many great things about the university, such as the Rome Program and how they are
able to make you think,” said Pinell. After doing his own research and finding out
about the 4+1 program in cybersecurity, he decided to follow Hamlet’s advice once
Although he admits that his high school self was not much interested in education,
Pinell now sees things differently. He now plans to pursue a master’s degree in cybersecurity,
hoping to later work for a private company or the government.
“UD helped me think about things more deeply and carefully,” he said. “Thanks to Catholic
education, I am willing to help others in the future.”