Meet John and Cathy Severance: Veteran Homeschoolers Talk Riverside and Radical Hospitality

By April 30, 2023

Riverside began ten years ago with a deep dissatisfaction by Peter Searby about the state of the education system in this country…and, of course, with a lot of prayer. The first “official” informational meeting began at the Lombard home of John and Cathy Severance, who, at that time, were homeschooling their ten children. (They now have 11.)

Pete pitched his idea that night to a large audience of families, and the rest is history. The Severance family has continued extending its hospitality to Riverside by hosting increasingly larger events, first at their residence, and then at their beautiful ranch property in Sugar Grove. Two Severance boys have gone through the Riverside Tutorial; the youngest (6) is anxiously awaiting his turn. Four Severance girls joined their brothers in Theatre and in various other Riverside programming, and Pauline is now in the new Riverside Studio for girls.

The Riverside Tutorial and Studio are getting ready to end their year with a C.S. Lewis inspired event and the families with children in these programs will once again descend on the Severance ranch. It seems fitting, therefore, to take a moment to get to know the proprietors a little better and to hear more about the start of Riverside from a couple who has been there from the beginning.

Meet John and Cathy Severance.

Your family has been with Riverside since the early days. How did you meet Pete and become involved?

John: I believe it was (fellow homeschool dads) John Shine or Frank Brannon who told me about Pete – a former (prep school)  teacher who was looking to launch a completely different type of education. One that was designed to let boys learn in their own way – exploring a landscape of adventure, igniting their imaginations through epic stories, climbing, jumping, drawing, acting, sword fighting, I immediately said: I need to meet this guy. I want to help make this happen. 

Tell us a little bit about that fateful day at your house and Pete’s initial pitch that, as he might say, cast the vision of Riverside into our minds and hearts.

Cathy: John told me that a guy named Peter Searby was coming to our house to meet with both of us about an idea he had for starting an all boys school on a farm. I was a bit surprised he wanted to meet with both of us because I didn’t usually get involved with John’s work. (Pete) told us that he was really dissatisfied with the method of learning he witnessed as headmaster in a prestigious school building with fluorescent lights and square porcelain floor tiles, where middle school boys sat at desks for hours on end with heads on the desks and spitballs in their pens. He wanted instead to find a farm where boys could read, write, roam and create all sorts of things through their imaginations formed by the excellent literature of writers like Tolkien and Lewis. (When he told us this,) he sold us immediately.

We figured (the idea) wouldn’t fly as easily with families in the school system, but we’d like him to meet our homeschooling friends to pitch them the idea.

John:  We packed a hundred people in our living room to hear Pete convey his vision. He had everyone’s undivided, enthusiastic attention. I remember (homeschooling mom of six and long-time friend) Joan Dziak telling me in the kitchen right after Pete’s talk: “I know this will cost money, but I’ll find it.” She was sold. We all were. 

Even before the ranch in Sugar Grove, you opened up your home and property in Lombard to Riverside. You have said that your family’s calling is radical hospitality. Please tell us a little bit more about this and why it is important.

Cathy:  We actually came up with that term when we did a family retreat developed by John at (his business) Great & Main. We had to pinpoint our strongest gifts to understand what we believed God was calling our family to. We realized that we loved to bring people together, cook delicious food, play Irish music, and have good conversations about taking over the world with our big families. John and I met in college in a great books program called the St. Ignatius Institute. The faculty there, formed by Fr. Joseph Fessio, taught us all about hospitality. It was there that Christ revealed Himself to us through the beautiful writings of the great saints. We spent hours and hours with our friends in and outside of class dissecting the purpose for our lives and figuring out how to defend the lives of vulnerable children in the womb. It was a rich and exciting experience there in the heart of a liberal Jesuit college in the middle of San Francisco.

John:  I grew up with a house packed with people plotting cultural revolution. Itinerant priests. Irish dancers. Puppet theater troupes. Sodality ladies attending evening Mass. Businessmen selling dried food to prep for nuclear war. Later, I worked at USF, and we lived between upper and lower campus. It was common for me to come home to a living room full of students. And we all shared great meals and great conversation. 

Living rooms are natural gathering spaces to discuss important ideas and to forge friendship. I benefited from my parents – and Cathy’s too – hosting large groups of people in our homes. So it was second nature that we did that same. 

You found your home in Lombard in a very special way. Could you tell us the story of the stairs? And the ranch in Sugar Grove is so spectacular. Can you tell us how it came to be that you decided to buy a property and found the ranch?

John:   We were having a tough time looking for a home. So we prayed a novena to St. Joseph and we had a postcard of the miraculous staircase in The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. One hundred years ago, the nuns there prayed for someone to build a staircase to their choir loft. During the novena, a man showed up looking for a place to stay. They said he could stay and asked him to build a staircase. With simple tools, over the next eight months, he built a 360 degree spiral staircase of 33 steps, no nails, no center support beam, and the wood from some unknown region. He then left without notice and without pay. 

So when we prayed to St. Joseph, we asked him to find us a home. Cathy wanted a ranch. I wanted at least one acre. (Our oldest son) Johnny wanted a tractor. Well, we found a 1.5 acre ranch with a tractor in the garage. And when I saw the 360 degree spiral staircase that led to the basement, I knew St. Joseph had answered our prayers in a special way. 

We bought the ranch in Sugar Grove as a way to invest the generous COVID money my business received from the U.S. government. I moved my business there for a while. We see the ranch as an opportunity to host events for Riverside, Chesterton (Academy of the Holy Family), family, and friends.. 

Cathy:  We had also prayed a novena the previous year to St Joseph to help us sell our house in 2008. It didn’t sell but we found an excellent and affordable carpenter to fix up the house. He replaced the railing on the staircase that the buyer claimed was the first reason she liked the home. That house sold in 6 days during the big housing-market crash.

Let’s talk a little bit more about your family. Both of you have quite a large number of siblings. What was that like growing up and how did it influence you as you started your own family? Any lessons you learned from your parents that you implemented in your own household?

John:  I am one of eight kids. I never wanted my own room because the best conversations were with my brothers after the lights went off, when we were supposed to be sleeping. I always knew I wanted a large family. The parties, the food fights, the pillow fights, the chase scenes, the hospital trips for stitches – that’s the good life. My parents spoke strongly against birth control. And each one of us benefited greatly from their generosity. 

Cathy – I am #7 of 13 kids and the first girl. My shins had perpetual bruises and the cover up I put on them only streaked from sweat. I gave up trying to protect them and I was always arguing that I threw like a girl because I was a girl. 

My parents fell in love partly because they both wanted a large family and they were very trusting in God’s will. My mom never worked –  for money. My dad always held several jobs at a time to put food on the table until he was able to start a business that is now run by my brothers and is supporting their combined 45 kids. Our Catholic faith came before everything, and my father led the family. My parents taught us that nothing is more valuable in marriage than a child–a child who has an immortal soul with the potential to do great things and can finally be happy in heaven for eternity. Cars are cool but kids are better. When I decided that I’d only learn NFP…(if and) when we couldn’t put food on the table, we started getting free food from Trader Joes by the truckload. God is very generous. John and I agree that children are the most valuable gift we can receive from and give back to God. My mom encouraged me to be a stay-at-home mother and by all modern standards, we could not afford to have one income. We had college debt and one modest salary for many years. We lived check to check and by God’s grace but it never deterred us from having children. We were happy to give up all of the other pleasures of life while our children grew up.

What went into your decision to homeschool? What has been your guiding principle and how has it changed over the years?

Cathy:  We had our first four kids in San Francisco and I told John we would have to leave when it was time to start school because I would never homeschool. I didn’t think for a minute that I could do it, especially with so many little ones. I sent the first two to school for a few years and then decided to homeschool after seeing the books and learning from my sister-in-law what homeschooling was about. I realized that there’s a huge world out there that our kids couldn’t learn about in those buildings that looked like Alcatraz. The resources for learning are endless and the homeschooling communities have a rich culture. When my kids were in school, I felt like I had already sent them away. Kids grow up fast, and I wanted to be involved in their lives. I’ve never regretted it. My guiding principle is to develop a love for learning in the kids, have a schedule and be very flexible with it, learn an instrument if at all possible, don’t waste time and put prayer first always. Aim for daily mass and rosary. I notice that I always lose my peace when I let busyness replace prayer. And I learned that prayer multiplies time.

John:  I learned to let Cathy manage it. But I did create a writing curriculum that is somewhere on an old computer. 

What has Riverside brought to your family and your homeschool?

John:  Riverside has formed the community we belong to, created the culture our family thrives in, inspired our sons’ and daughters’ imagination, and developed their personal talents. We care deeply about the Riverside family, and we are grateful for Pete’s courage, creativity, and vision. 

When Adrian (our youngest) was born, and the kids learned he was a boy, they immediately shouted: ”Riverside!” Adrian is like a Riverside Mowgli. And it’s amazing to see so many other little siblings growing up singing, dancing, acting, sketching, building. They are happy, free-range souls. 

Cathy:  As John said, it has pulled together a phenomenal, faith-filled community that shares the same primary values. The greatest and most unique thing Riverside did was bring fathers into the homeschooling scene. Before Riverside, it was just mom and all of the children. The father-son outings, camps and projects are invaluable. The rich leisure time between sons and dad really strengthens their relationship. That’s definitely my favorite aspect. 

What advice would you give to new homeschooling/Riverside families just starting their journey?

John:  Don’t imitate institutional schools. Make lots of time for praying, reading, playing, and the arts. Educate your children in the faith. That’s the ultimate vision of Riverside and homeschooling – to get our kids to heaven. 

Cathy:  Do not be afraid. Help your children develop a love for learning by enjoying learning with them. If you love your children, do things in the proper order. Love God first, your spouse second, and your children third. That’s the best education your children need.  Don’t let any curveballs from the dark lords knock you off course for their victory. Don’t miss a day of family prayer and then God will take care of the rest.

Monta Hernon

Author Monta Hernon

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