(This article was updated on Feb. 23.)
From Florida to New Jersey, schools throughout the Province showcased the merits of a Catholic education steeped in the tradition and values of St. Francis of Assisi during the 45th annual National Catholic Schools Week. Their full slate of events and activities put faces, places and actions to this year’s CSW theme, “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” From service projects and open house events, to wax museums and academic presentations, these schools celebrated their students, teachers, staff, families, parishes, communities, and partners in education.
All of the schools have the common thread of offering a rigorous curriculum that fosters academic excellence, living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, caring for the marginalized, and service as stewards of social and environmental justice. Each is a diverse, welcoming environment – mission-based institutions that provide tuition assistance, through the support of generous partners, so that no family seeking a Catholic education for their child is turned away due to financial limitations. It is their Franciscan values that set them apart from other Catholic schools. Below is a snapshot look at how schools celebrated Catholic Schools Week – which took place from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 – as well as a glimpse into what makes them special and what they do throughout the school year.
Early Learning Center in Florida
At Saints Peter and Paul Early Learning Center in Winter Park, Fla., a series of events during Catholic Schools Week celebrated clergy, community, teachers, parish, first responders and members of the military, according to Paul Santoro, OFM, who has served as chaplain at the center for approximately 18 months, around the time that he and other friars of Holy Name Province arrived at the San Damiano Friary in Orlando to serve in the Orange County community. The Early Learning Center, which welcomes infants through Pre-K4 and is part of the diocesan parish of Sts. Peter and Paul whose church is located on the same grounds as the center, celebrated the parish clergy at a special breakfast.
“It was a wonderful event held in the center’s cafeteria, with parents supplying the food and the four-year-olds hosting the breakfast as a way of showing their appreciation for us. They greeted us and we chatted over breakfast,” said Paul, who also serves as pastoral associate at the parish, which is staffed by two diocesan priests and five deacons.
During CSW, the center also hosted a reception for parents who are first responders and members of the military branches as an expression of recognition and gratitude for their service. The week of festivities started with a prayer service, at which Paul presided, attended by children, parents, and staff. The Saturday of CSW was designated for families to meet outside of the school environment.
“Families were encouraged to get together at a playground or restaurant, or at each other’s homes, as a way of building community, camaraderie and friendship,” said Paul, who visits the Early Learning Center weekly and leads chapel time every Friday with the four-year-olds. The center also sponsored an open house for families of this age group, inviting representatives from four area Catholic schools to present information about their kindergarten programs.
“Catholic schools offer a faith-filled Christian environment where we can freely talk about God and our faith. In addition to academic excellence, parents know that their children are getting a solid spiritual foundation – and that’s the one piece of the puzzle that you don’t get in public schools,” said Paul, who spent more than 20 years as a high school theology teacher in New York and New Jersey and now lives at San Damiano Friary in East Orlando.
St. Peter Claver Catholic School in Macon
An interfaith pastor’s service and a day of caring provided the centerpiece for Catholic Schools Week at St. Peter Claver Parish in Macon. Students sorted non-perishable items at a community food bank, brought cheer to the residents of an elder care facility, and led learning games with children in the Pre-K program.
“At St. Peter Claver, education is rooted in Franciscan values – caring for others, serving the greater community, and recognizing God’s face in everyone,” said Regina Sweeney, director of development. “That’s what sets us apart.” Noting that 70 percent of the student population is non-Catholic, Sweeney said the interfaith prayer service was held at the parish church with 14 pastors from Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and other churches where students and their families worship. Before retreating to a fellowship reception, John Coughlin, OFM, school chaplain and parochial vicar, invited the pastors to the altar and asked students to gather around them to recognize their important role in the spiritual development of the youngsters.
Located in the historic neighborhood of Pleasant Hill, St. Peter Claver is widely recognized by local educators for being well prepared academically and spiritually. With 200 students in Pre-K3 to 8th grade, the school’s central Georgia location draws from seven counties, with its all-day Pre-K3/4 and before- after-school care programs attractive to working parents. A new institution made its debut during CSW – new school mascot Carl the Cougar. The long history of the school is celebrated daily by the school’s wall of fame, which showcases former students for their achievements and service, among them a four-time Super Bowl champion. But one name embodies the sense of family and community at St. Peter Claver – Margaret Sullivan, whose recognition came not out of fame, but for being a member of the first graduating class and the first of five generations to attend the 116-year-old school.
Greenville’s St. Anthony of Padua School
For St. Anthony of Padua, service and family are the hallmarks of the school in downtown Greenville, S.C. “You’re part of a larger family extending to the parish, community and ministries,” said Mary Margaret Martin, principal. “The family atmosphere, Franciscan values and academic excellence attract families to our school.” Not coincidentally, the student council held weeklong food and “change-for-change” drives during CSW, collecting canned goods for the St. Anthony Parish food pantry and donating change to purchase bus passes for needy residents. Students participate in monthly service projects throughout the school year, including aluminum can drives, assembling toiletry kits, and collecting scarves.
“We incorporate Franciscan values into day-to-day life and academics, teaching our students to be good stewards of the earth and to serve those in need,” Martin said, noting that students distribute the bounty of a campus community vegetable garden to poor residents. With 90 percent of the student population non-Catholic, the school reaches out to other churches and community centers to fill Pre-K3 to 6th grade classes. “The graduation rate is 100 percent entrance into high school, and later college, so this is a very fruitful mission,” said Patrick Tuttle, OFM, pastor. “Interestingly, it is a mission to the Baptist community more than the Catholic community because the majority population in Greenville is Baptist. It doesn’t matter what religion they are, it matters that they are human beings deserving of a quality education.”
During CSW, students wrote letters of appreciation to corporate donors and volunteers, and thank-you cards to their teachers and military veterans. Tito Serrano, OFM, who teaches religion class, gave a vocation talk at the school, which is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. Earlier this year, Carolyn Lenhardt, dean of students, was among Upstate Parent Magazine’s top-10 educators. Festivities culminated with a school social with a special guest DJ – none other than Patrick, who was spinning the vinyl along with a disco ball party light at the family gathering. “The celebration of Catholic Schools Week was filled with remarkable affirmations of the people of God,” said Patrick, who expressed gratitude to a local Catholic high school for donating the proceeds of their Spirit Week fundraising campaign.
Immaculata Catholic School in Durham
It’s a rite of spring at Immaculata, where students happily forego recess for as many days as it takes to re-plaster and paint a weather worn statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the school’s courtyard – the story of a simple act that speaks volumes during CSW of the dynamic Franciscan charism taking place at the Durham, N.C., school. “Our teachers take Franciscan values to heart, working them into the school day and curriculum – and our students respond,” said Patrick Kurz, assistant principal. “We intentionally teach students how to make their environment, community and world a better place.” Social justice ideals, a hallmark of Franciscan ministry, were on full display during CSW, as the 530-member Immaculata student body (grades Pre-K3 to 8) participated in a food collection drive to fill the near-empty shelves of the local Catholic Charities food pantry. Throughout the school year, students visit area nursing homes and provide meals and hygiene kits to a local program that serves the hungry and homeless.
In addition to Immaculata’s Blue Ribbon distinction, the middle school program was the first in the state to earn AdvancED STEM certification – an initiative that integrates science, technology, engineering and math, and challenges students to devise solutions to global problems that have overlapping social justice ramifications, such as poverty in India and fresh water issues in Africa. CSW at Immaculata featured an essay and poem writing contest; a spelling bee, Catholic trivial pursuit contest, and student-faculty volleyball game; family night, and Mass. Students also wrote notes of thanks to friars at Immaculate Conception Parish, including Christopher VanHaight, OFM, pastor, and parochial vicars Mario Gomez, OFM, and Hugh Macsherry, OFM. A school assembly featured guest speaker Mike Krzyzewski, the renowned head coach of the men’s basketball team at nearby Duke University, who spoke passionately of his Catholic educational upbringing.
The Franciscan School in Raleigh
For a second consecutive year, the reach of students at The Franciscan School was felt 7,320 miles across the Atlantic Ocean as part of a service project during CSW to help children in Uganda with a foot parasite that makes walking an excruciatingly painful ordeal. Students cut patterns from old denim jeans that are used by a program called Sole Hope to create soft shoes that are sent to thousands of Ugandans. “Our students experienced firsthand how they can change lives in a real way,” said Michael Watson, principal. “We are establishing a foundation that prepares them to leverage their God-given gifts and continue the Franciscan mission of spreading the message of Jesus and helping those on the fringes. We are creating advocates and leaders of the future.” During CSW, students also partnered with the parish’s migrant ministry to collect toiletries and clothing for migrant farm workers. They filled grocery bags with non-perishables for a local food program, collected baby blankets for an area children’s hospital, and helped stock the shelves of a food pantry of sister parish Our Lady of the Rosary.
Watson says that parents of other religions send their children to The Franciscan School, as opposed to private institutions, because they see the significance of a Franciscan values-driven education. “You can truly be any faith and feel that you are part of our Franciscan family,” said Watson, noting that “family” encompasses the parish, community, nation and world – which is why daily themes during CSW recognized parishioners, volunteers, faculty, and those in service-oriented vocations. “It’s a sense that everyone belongs, sometimes in something as simple as students being asked to wear their school uniforms to Mass,” Watson said. The Franciscan School, which has a student population of 630 in Pre-K2 to 8th grade, has Blue Ribbon accreditation and is also accredited by AdvancED.
St. Francis of Assisi School, Triangle, Va.
In northern Virginia, the St. Francis of Assisi School community coordinated activities that showcased how students at the Triangle school live the CSW slogan – starting with an open house where a collection of student work was featured, including an art gallery, technology and book displays, and religion and history projects. Throughout CSW, students at St. Francis – which opened its doors in 1957, the same year that Holy Name Province began staffing the parish – demonstrated what it means to be a Catholic school in the Franciscan tradition. They collected hygiene products and canned food for parish-sponsored St. Francis House, which provides assistance to the disadvantaged. The school’s Care for Creation Club made blankets for an area homeless shelter.
“We prepare students to lead and succeed in a world in which they will evangelize their faith. These activities show them that they can have an impact when helping others, and that living Catholic Franciscan values helps them become strong citizens of integrity,” said Tricia Barber, principal of the school that has an enrollment of 270 students in grades Pre-K3 to 8. The close proximity to Washington, D.C., and having federal government agencies as neighbors, presents challenges to the school’s enrollment management strategies. “We are not a geographical school or parish, and with the transient nature of federal government jobs, we have a unique turnaround,” Barber explained. “But our academic excellence and Franciscan hospitality provides parents with a sense of comfort, whether they are enrolling their children in the Pre-K program or entering the school for the first time in fifth grade.”
Barber praised the devotion of the teaching staff, two members who have received teacher of the year honors from a local business network. CSW activities integrated academics, faith and fellowship, among them family skate night at a local roller-rink; the pairing of 2nd and 5th grade students for educational games; a luncheon with altar servers hosted by Henry Fulmer, OFM, pastoral associate; a screening of “Pope Francis – A Man of His Word;” a Mass focusing on justice and peace; the school’s science fair, and a living wax museum in which 4th graders portrayed the state’s most renowned historic figures.
Saint Francis International School in Maryland
As one of the most culturally diverse schools in the United States – where 80 percent of its students have at least one parent who is an immigrant – culture day took center stage at Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, Md., during Catholic Schools Week. SFIS was transformed into a living tapestry of culture, as the nearly 500 students, from Pre-K2 to 8, came dressed in garb that reflected the colors of their heritage. “With nearly 50 countries represented in the school population, SFIS rivals the United Nations!” said Christopher Posch, OFM, pastor of St. Camillus, the Franciscan church that supports the school. The SFIS choir helped kick off CSW at a Mass at St. Mark the Evangelist Church, whose school gym is home to SFIS athletic programs. The campus of St. Camillus is home to all of SFIS’s academic programs. Future plans call for St. Mark’s campus to house the SFIS middle school program, while St. Camillus will house the early childhood and primary school programs.
Throughout Catholic Schools Week, SFIS held several activities that inspired school spirit, inclusion, teamwork and camaraderie – including pajama and movie day; doppelganger day, where students either teamed up with a classmate and dressed as twins, or came dressed as their favorite celebrity; an ice-skating adventure, and a Mass. SFIS, whose pre-school, elementary and middle school programs are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ AdvancED program, requires all families to provide volunteer service to help support the school. This is consistent with the SFIS philosophy, which maintains that as a Catholic school in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, it offers experiences within an educational environment that enables students to build a community of faith and reach out in a spirit of service to others. Located in the heart of Federal government offices and serving families in which both parents are employed outside the home, SFIS offers an extended school program that assists with child care and academic support before and after school.
St. Mary’s Catholic School in North Jersey
At St. Mary’s in Pompton Lakes, N.J., the school’s greatest assets – students – did most of the talking during Catholic Schools Week, serving as tour ambassadors, addressing the congregation at parish Sunday Masses, and appearing in a marketing video that received more than 8,000 hits on the St. Mary’s website during CSW. One of the most creative presentations was a “museum” in which the students were the art, as they dressed like famous paintings, historical figures, saints and other themed subjects while their classmates provided narrative. Students demonstrated their knowledge at spelling and history bees, while service was the theme of hoops and jump rope events to raise funds for the American Heart Association. Service projects are a year-round theme, as students support a local animal shelter, women and children’s home, and the parish pantry. “Service work in the wider community is an integral part of St. Mary’s, and the ideas often come from the students,” said Carol La Salle, principal.
Prayer is also central to the culture, as exemplified in a weekly Rosary by middle school grade students – during recess! “I talk to parents about faith development and family in the Franciscan tradition because that’s what sets us apart from other Catholic schools,” La Salle said. “That attracts parents, along with the fact our students are accepted into the best high schools with scholarships.” Friars have a strong presence, whether attending socials or greeting students when they arrive at school. “Children learn best when they feel like part of a community. This sense of welcoming makes us distinctly Franciscan,” said John Aherne, OFM, parochial vicar. “We instill Franciscan values, teaching students to become disciples of Jesus.” With an enrollment of 270 students in Pre-K3 to 8th grade, St. Mary’s has AdvancED STEM-certification, the project-based interdisciplinary curriculum of science, technology, engineering and math. At a recent engineering expo that spotlights students’ academic excellence, 8th grade students designed and built a life-size geo-dome as a solution to temporary housing for natural disaster victims in Haiti. The Franciscan influence was not lost on the project, with students integrating social justice and caring for all creation.
Cristo Rey Newark High School in New Jersey
As Catholic Schools Week was approaching, Robert Sandoz, OFM, president of Cristo Rey Newark High School, addressed a decades-old issue in a guest article he wrote for The Catholic Advocate, the publication of the Diocese of Newark, N.J. For decades, business and corporate leaders have been imploring educators to better prepare young people for the workplace. Robert wrote that these leaders say that after college graduation, young people are ill-prepared for the workforce. In his article in the Jan. 23 Catholic Schools Week edition, Robert writes, “The Cristo Rey model of innovative education addresses this need head-on and is making great progress in helping young people be productive immediately following their college graduation.”
He goes on to say, “As with any college preparatory school, we have a rigorous course of studies that readies the graduate to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with student peers from any other community. Our work-study program takes its place equally with academics and character formation.” As part of its rigorous classroom curriculum and faith-based education, Cristo Rey Newark High School helps place students in workplace environments, preferably one that interests them as a potential profession, to gain valuable work experience. It is part of a 35-school Cristo Ray Network across the country.
— Steve Mangione, a writer based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: Due to schedule and space limitations, not all events around Holy Name Province are included in this story The Communications Office staff encourages readers to submit information about news at HNP ministry sites by email at Communications@hnp.org or by phone at 646-473-0265 ext. 321.
- “Baseball, Team-Building and Fundraisers Begin School Year” – Nov. 1, 2016, HNP Today
- “Maryland Parishes Plan Opening of St. Francis International School” – Feb. 3, 2010, HNP Today
- “Greenville’s St. Anthony of Padua School Completes New Building” – June 5, 2013, HNP Today