On a recent morning just before spring break, 9th-graders studying algebra at Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage filed into class, took their seats and opened their notebooks.
Their teacher was Father Mark Francis Manzano, a Dominican friar stationed at Holy Family Cathedral.
If there’s a formula that balances science and religion, profession and service Father Manzano may be onto it.
While it might not be strange to see a priest teaching theology in a Catholic school, Father Manzano packs a background heavy in the sciences as part of his calling. He told the Catholic Anchor that, as a Dominican priest, the emphasis of his training lies in the sciences as stepping stones to theology.
“When we think of the sciences, historically, theology is what we call the queen of the sciences,” he explained after teaching a recent class. “And it was often the case before anyone was ordained a (Dominican) priest they had to show mastery in all the other sciences.”
Moments before speaking with the Anchor, however, he was plowing through a set of quadratic equations and pushing the tip of a green dry erase marker to its limits on the whiteboard. The class included plenty of smiles, laughter, rapid-fire questions, interjections and hints as Father Manzano fielded questions from seven students preparing for an algebra exam. Students took notes and asked for clarifications while equations poured across the board as fast as Father Manzano’s hands could move.
One problem related specifically to the principle of the telescope and camera lenses. Father Manzano wasted no time connecting the logic of the math to its relevance in capturing the beauty of God’s creations of light and the universe via a photograph. In the remainder of the hour, he related no fewer than four instances where Catholic priests or monks made significant contributions to physics, astronomy, biology and botany.
“How about this one?” he asked, scribbling four sets of letters across the board.
Students immediately recognized the setup as the grid for dominant and recessive genes, but they struggled for the answer when Father Manzano asked who came up with the calculation to measure the probability of recessive genes being expressed.
Turns out it was Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel.
“We call him the father of botany, or sometimes the father of genetics, because he’s the one who helped establish dominant and recessive genes — and how in successive generations how that plays out in the offspring,” Father Manzano explained.
As for how a day plays out for Father Francis, it is a blend of celebrating Mass at the downtown cathedral, hearing confessions and other functions of the church, and then working at his love for teaching.
“Historically, the Dominicans have always been involved in education,” he observed. “The first friars of Saint Dominic wanted to make sure they had access to the universities. Spain and France is where the first were from. So we’re always in and around university cities.”
Like many religious callings, Father Manzano’s path to the priesthood came by way of pursuit of something else.
“I’d always wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “Had I not entered the seminary or the religious life, my plan was to go back to my old high school and teach math.”
But God had other plans.
“I was a junior in the university, and I just couldn’t satisfy that itch of exploring the religious life,” he said. “All the doors started opening.”
He entered the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, in Berkley, Calif., in 2003 and was ordained in 2011.
He spent his first assignment as a priest in Mexico, but soon was needed in Alaska. For the past year-and-a-half he has celebrated daily Mass and been teaching algebra and theology at Holy Rosary.
“I got sent up here from the hot and dusty life on the Mexican frontier,” he recounted, adding that his vocation could also take him away someday. Like other priests, he will go where he is needed, rather than moving to where he’d like to live.
Until the day he is called to serve elsewhere, students and staff at Holy Rosary will continue capitalizing on his spiritual and mathematical contributions to the school.
“It really builds morale,” said Danielle DiCiero, business manager at Holy Rosary. “It’s a very reassuring thing that he’s here in the school.”
Back in the classroom, with 10 minutes left in the first period, Father Manzano opened the top drawer to his desk and broke out an assortment of treats.
“Time to get rid of some candy,” he announced. He smiled upon the students, his eyes flashing with ebullience over the top of his glasses. Notebooks slammed shut with a palpable shift in energy as the students moved from what was already fun to something truly elevated.
Father Manzano readied his hands with goodies to toss among students. He began pitching questions steeped in Catholic history: What important event occurred in the third century? A student answered: A profession of faith — the Nicene Creed.
“The great schism happened in what century?”
The class is stumped on this one, and various students try leapfrogging their way up from the third to the 13th century. But they’ve missed one.
When no one happened upon the right century, Father Manzano stepped in.
“The Great Schism happened in 1,054, putting it in the 11th century,” he noted.
He walked to the whiteboard and wrote: “6.02 x 10 to the 23rd.”
“Whose number is this?”
“Aagh. I know this,” said one of the students.
“It’s posted somewhere in this room,” Father Manzano offered.
That got them out of their seats — several girls hovered near a periodic chart that festoons the front of the classroom. Some looked high; others low. When none located it Father Manzano offered that it’s Avogadro’s Number, a figure named after the scientist Amedeo Avogadro, which delineates the number of atoms or molecules that are contained in the amount of substance given by one mole.
There was much laughter upon that revelation, and Father Manzano cracked a wry smile suggesting that learning deep math skills can be a fun path to travel.
“I hope that I can be witness to both — not only in theology — but in other areas of their lives,” he said of the students. “I want them to excel.”
As the period drew to an end, Father Manzano bid students a blessed spring break and then walked to the chapel to celebrate another daily Mass with 134 pupils.