For Harry Rissetto, the lessons he learned in the classroom and by serving others as a student at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., continue to shape his work as the chair of the school’s religion department and as a theology teacher at his alma mater, where he has taught since 2003.

As he engages his students in his classes about what the Catholic Church teaches and how they are called to bring their faith to the world, he sees his work as a vocation.

“This is how I’m called to serve,” Rissetto said. “Every day I wake up, I love what I do. I feel blessed and honored to be able to serve God in this way.”

This spring, Rissetto was named as one of 10 Catholic school teachers across the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the 2020 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence. The awards are sponsored by the Donahue Family Foundation, and recipients receive a $5,000 prize, a golden apple and a certificate.

In an interview, Rissetto spoke of the special blessings of his work. At Gonzaga, he teaches classes in systematic theology, ecclesiology, Christology and Scripture.

“Teaching religion at a Catholic school with a Jesuit tradition for someone like me, a layman with a family, is a beautiful way to express my faith, but also to grow in my faith, because each day I grow in faith with my students,” he said.

Rissetto said he was humbled and honored to receive the Golden Apple Award, and said that honor is a reflection of “the great institution and great department” where he works. The nine faculty members in Gonzaga’s religion department that he leads “share a mission to bring young men closer to Jesus Christ,” he said, adding, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of that on a daily basis?”

Harry Rissetto, seated at center in the front row, poses with the faculty members in Gonzaga College High School's religion department, which he chairs. (Courtesy photo)

A member of Gonzaga’s class of 1989, Rissetto grew up in Falls Church, Virginia and attended Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown. Now he and his family are members of St. James Parish in Falls Church. His wife Theresa runs a graphic design business, and they have two daughters, Olivia, 16, and Ava, 14.

After graduating from another Jesuit school, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, with an undergraduate degree in history, Rissetto served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps from 1993-94.

“That call to social justice really began for me at Gonzaga and continued at Holy Cross,” he said.

While a Gonzaga student, Rissetto volunteered with the Special Olympics and also cooked and served food to the homeless at the Father McKenna Center in Washington. At Holy Cross, he volunteered at a family services center, tutoring elementary school children.

During his year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Rissetto worked at a food bank in central California, a region that is one of the nation’s bread baskets for producing food, but he noted that the migrant laborers and farmworkers who harvested those crops often had difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.

“I really had my eyes open to issues of food security and hunger,” he said.

After that, he worked for about five years in Florida with the SHARE food distribution program and also with Esperanca (“hope” in Portuguese), traveling with a medical relief group that sent doctors and dentists to remote areas of Brazil, Bolivia and Honduras. While Rissetto was in Florida, he led a Bible study group for young adults at his Catholic parish, and eventually he felt called to teach.

“I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

Rissetto then earned a master’s degree in theological studies from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2003, he came home to the Washington area and began teaching at Gonzaga while he was working on his doctorate in theology at The Catholic University of America. He earned his doctorate in 2008, writing his dissertation on Mary Virginia Merrick, a native Washingtonian and the founder of the National Christ Child Society. Her sainthood cause is under consideration.

“I feel a kinship with her,” said Rissetto, who noted “her devotion to the Christ Child and her spirituality drawn by that devotion.” During Gonzaga’s school Masses, the students in Rissetto’s homeroom sit in a pew near a stained glass window at St. Aloysius Church depicting the Christ Child that Merrick would have seen while growing up in that parish.

Mary Virginia Merrick, who was paralyzed in a fall as a teenager, founded the National Christ Child Society in 1887 to serve children in need. Her legacy continues today through the service of 6,000 volunteers in 44 Christ Child Society chapters across the United States.

As he completed his doctorate, Rissetto said he discerned “where God was calling me as an educator.” During those years, he was teaching at Gonzaga, and he was also an adjunct professor at Catholic University. The CUA students taking his Mision Latin America class in the spring semester would learn about the history and current issues in that region, and would spend three weeks in the summer serving the poor in communities in Guatemala, Panama, Honduras or Belize, which he said gave them an opportunity “to take lessons from the classroom into the real world, in real time.”

Harry Rissetto, a 1989 graduate of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., returned to teach at his alma mater in 2003. (Courtesy photo)

Rissetto decided to continue his teaching career at Gonzaga. He noted that the neighborhood had changed over the years, from the school bordering public housing during his student years, to now, when “our neighbors are million dollar condos.”

“The students there are the same,” he added. “The students are there to grow spiritually and intellectually. They are committed to social justice, and those are the kids you love teaching.”

This spring when Catholic school campuses were closed due to safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, Rissetto said he continued holding his classes each day online, as students discussed different elements of Church teaching in his systematic theology class, and the development and mission of the Church in his ecclesiology class.

He noted that through the Zoom platform, he was able to maintain the rhythm of his classes.

“The guys are taking the engine apart and seeing what makes it work,” he said of their discussions on Church teaching.

Asked about Gonzaga’s famous mantra of developing “Men for Others,” Rissetto said, “It becomes that only with God’s grace.”

“You teach students, and you hope they take the lessons you taught and the seeds you planted, and that those bear fruit in their lives. That’s the hope of any teacher,” he said.

Rissetto said he hears from students about the impact that their education at Gonzaga has had on their lives, and it is especially moving for him to attend the school’s multi-class reunions, meeting again with some of his former classmates and former students.

The Gonzaga alumni at those reunions, he said, describe the difference their Catholic education at that Jesuit school has made in their lives.

“It’s how they raise their families. It’s how they embrace their employment. They’re doctors, lawyers, politicians, businessmen, all with an openness to the good that can be accomplished in society. Not everybody who leaves Gonzaga becomes a priest, but everybody helps build the kingdom” of God in today’s world, he said.