Latin in Real Life

Latin in Real Life
De Smet Jesuit Communications

An ancient language in a modern day classroom could be just another day in Latin class. But on this day in 2018, students were transcribing an actual letter written by Pope Pius from 1939.

When Christopher Carrillo ’05 heard about a letter written in Latin to his friend’s relative who had been a priest in Davenport, Iowa, he reached out to his alma mater and Latin teacher, Sarah Schmidt. Realizing the opportunity for real-world application, hands-on learning, and the chance to help, Ms. Schmidt turned the inquiry into a project-based lesson for her junior and senior Latin classes.

“The more people working on this, the better,” said Ms. Schmidt. Before translation could even begin, she explained, they needed to produce a clean, readable copy of the letter. “The letters on the end of a word in Latin can change the way you translate. One letter can change the way the entire sentence is constructed.”

Ancient Meets Innovation
Ms. Schmidt reserved cave four in the Innovation Center where two high-top tables seat up to 10 (perfect for the honors senior Latin class), offer plenty of room for laptops and workspace, and are arranged to encourage collaboration and group conversation. A scanned photo of the letter was projected on the large wall-mounted monitor while students peered closely at the shared image on their laptop screens.

Students worked carefully through individual characters, words, and sentences, writing down their efforts on notebook paper. They spoke up continually, comparing their progress with that of their classmates and sharing their questions and their discoveries along the way.

Senior Ethan Aronson, who intends to minor in Latin in college, appreciated the authenticity of the assignment as well as the challenge. “The opportunity for a Jesuit school to transcribe and then translate a document that was written by the Pope—it’s an opportunity that you don’t tend to find until you get to graduate studies. So when you find it in a high school setting, it is wonderful.”

Translating Success
After comparing the various transcriptions in later class periods, the students settled on one master version to translate. Ms. Schmidt, whose emphasis is classical Latin, reached out to a colleague from Saint Louis University who specializes in Ecclesiastical Latin, the form used for liturgical purposes in the Catholic Church. As they uncovered sections of the letter mentioning clerical garments, Fr. Burshek, S.J., De Smet Jesuit theology teacher, was also brought in for consultation.

The consensus, after weeks of collaboration and studious efforts, resulted in a translated message from Pope Pius sharing his gratitude for the lifetime of service by J. W. Bulger. Ms. Schmidt reminded her class that although this was likely a formulaic letter, it was from a time when such ceremonial communication was written by hand and had now been saved for decades and treasured by family members.

“The kids were so excited about this project,” said Ms. Schmidt. “Every day they were asking about the progress and when they could work on it next.” They connected with the genuine nature of the assignment and enjoyed translating a found message while also helping someone connect to their family’s history.

Ethan, who intends to make room for Latin throughout his life and in his future as perhaps a professor or researcher, especially appreciates the historical element uniquely behind the Latin language. “We are about to translate Caesar, and authors, and what they actually wrote,” he concluded. “This is a great transition from textbook sentences to real world, real Latin.”

And so the language lives on.


Latin is one of three world languages offered at De Smet Jesuit along with Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. More than half of our students complete at least three years of a world language at De Smet Jesuit, and many earn college credit through the 1818 Advanced College Credit Program, Advanced Credit Program, or Advanced Placement courses. To learn more about Latin or our world language department, contact Sarah Schmidt, Department Chair. To learn more about our college credit programs, contact Chris Williams, Assistant Principal for Academics.

To peek into the other caves, contact Principal Kevin Poelker or take a virtual tour of our Innovation Center.

female teacher points at laptop screen to help student, Latin letter projected on wall monitor
student transcribes Latin text on paper with laptop open nearby
sepia tone image of J. W. Bulger, who received letter from Pope Pius
black and white photo of partial copy of letter from Pope Pius XII
four boys work on laptops in innovation center with wall monitor in background

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