Catholic schools exhibit a flair for education

Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, discusses vocations with young students at St. Jude School in Chattanooga. Photo by Bill Brewer

Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, discusses vocations with young students at St. Jude School in Chattanooga.
Photo by Bill Brewer

Catholic Schools Week in the Diocese of Knoxville showcased the talents of students, faculty and parents who exhibited flairs in a variety of areas—from singing, dancing and playing instruments, to fashion design, cooking and even stand-up comedy.

And there were volleyball, basketball and dodge ball feats thrown in for good measure.

The diocese’s 10 schools celebrated Catholic Schools Week Jan. 26-31, focusing attention on the theme set by the National Catholic Education Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.”

Snowy weather didn’t deter the schools from showing off their creative sides, even though students missed one to two days of class because of a winter storm.

“Even though all 10 of our schools were closed on Jan. 29 during Catholic Schools Week, it was a great week. Catholic Schools Week highlights the blessing it is to attend a Catholic school,” said Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, superintendent of diocesan schools.

“All our schools had many events planned, including various service projects, honoring of students, honoring of faculty, vocation days, and community service just to name a few. Catholic Schools Week gives our students, families, staff and faculty a time to celebrate the gift of Catholic schools,” she added.

Knoxville Catholic High School Students Michael Kirrman and Marisa Kirrman dress the part of Star Trek on Tacky Twins Day as part of Catholic Schools Week. Photo by Bill Brewer

Knoxville Catholic High School Students Michael Kirrman and Marisa Kirrman dress the part of Star Trek on Tacky Twins Day as part of Catholic Schools Week.
Photo by Bill Brewer

George Valadie, president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, educated the school’s parents that on the 40th anniversary of Catholic Schools Week, Catholic schools in the United States date back to the early 1600s and are a very American institution.

“This years’ theme is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” We could sit around a table for a long time but likely wouldn’t come up with a slogan that is any more straightforward — or accurate. It gets right to the heart of who and what we are,” Mr. Valadie said.

He said Catholic schools continue to occupy an important place in communities across the country, even as the number of religious vocations and children in Catholic schools has dropped while costs have risen.

“And yet, we have three in Chattanooga still going strong, still vibrant, still doing God’s work. And some 25 percent of the schools that do remain have a waiting list of people who would do most anything to get their child in. We talk to those sorts of parents all the time,” he said.

Catholic schools also are thriving in Johnson City, Kingsport and Knoxville, as witnessed by Sister Mary Marta, Sedonna Prater, director of curriculum and instruction for diocesan schools, and Marie Garvey, administrative assistant for the superintendent, who visited the schools during Catholic Schools Week.

St. Joseph School students and faculty show off their winning hats from a Catholic Schools Week competition. Photo by Bill Brewer

St. Joseph School students and faculty show off their winning hats from a Catholic Schools Week competition.
Photo by Bill Brewer

Students at St. Mary School in Johnson City and St. Joseph School in Knoxville donned specially decorated spirit hats to mark one of the Catholic Schools Week days, with St. Mary students taking advantage of a photo opportunity to have their picture taken as either a priest, nun or monk.

St. Dominic School in Kingsport held its version of American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent all in one, putting on a variety show that featured young comedians, singers, piano players, martial artists, gymnasts, rope jumpers, hula-hoopsters and pie-throwers.

The St. Dominic students performed for each other in an all-school assembly highlighted by faculty members who performed a song and danced for the students.

Student and faculty athletic skills were on display at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge, St. John Neumann School in Farragut and at Knoxville Catholic High School, where volleyball, basketball and dodge ball games pitted students against teachers.

Priests were joined by Religious Sisters of Mercy, Dominican Sisters, and Evangelizing Sisters of Mary in competing with faculty teams against students. Sister Maureen Oumay, ESM, scored several points in volleyball in helping the St. John Neumann faculty give the eighth-grade students all they could handle.

Father Dustin Collins, associate pastor of St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge teamed with Sister Marie Blanchette Cummings, OP, principal of St. Mary School, and Sisters Mary Rebekah, OP, Bernadette Marie, OP, and Angela Marie, OP, on the faculty team that played well against the students.

“There are many benefits of Catholic Schools Week. It is easy to take things for granted, particularly if you have never experienced things differently. Catholic Schools Week allows all of us to remember that we are able to talk about God in our school, to learn about Him, and most importantly learn to converse with Him. Our events were fun, involved our whole parish, welcomed parents, parishioners, and visitors to our school, and culminated in our Faith Rally (all school retreat),” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

She said the Faith Rally is the high point of Catholic Schools Week at St. Mary. As part of the rally, students are grouped in “faith families” with students from all grade levels. They start the day with Mass and also participate in adoration, share their faith during group activities, participate in holy art projects, and learn from eighth-grade leaders about saints through skits and discussions.

“The witness of two college students served to reinforce the importance of knowing that God’s love for each of us is immense and calls for us to respond to that love. It speaks volumes to put aside math, reading and all other academic subjects to focus on God for an entire day. One of the college students said she was moved to tears by watching the pre-k students during adoration. Many of our parents participated in the Faith Rally by helping the faith families, participating in the events with the students, and attending the talks for parents. I believe it is a day the students will not forget,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

She noted that celebrating Catholic Schools Week is “a great time to remember that you are part of a bigger community.”

“The students are made aware of all that our pastor, priests, and deacons do to help us journey to God’s kingdom. They are made aware of the many ways our parish supports the school through the parish employees whose work benefits the school, the numerous ministries of the parish, the financial commitment of the pastor, finance council, and parishioners,” she added. “Students see the many parents doing kind and thoughtful deeds to support the learning and the fun. They see the older students living their faith and helping the younger students to grow in their faith. The family atmosphere of the school is nurtured through students being grouped across grade levels. Catholic Schools Week helps all of us to see what great things we have here, to see the innumerable people who help make this school a special place, and strengthens the bonds of our St. Mary’s family.

At Knoxville Catholic High School, among the Catholic Schools Week activities were Tacky Twins Day, where students could team up in twos, threes or fours and dress identically, incorporating a host of “tacky” themes.

Among the themes seen around school were pajamas, camouflage, military, princesses, tacky tourists, Star Trek, and some that defied definition.

Students then took on KCHS faculty in a highly spirited game of dodge ball, testing the ability of Principal Dicky Sompayrac, Father Christopher Manning, who is chaplain at the school, immediate past chaplain Father David Carter, Sister Joan of Arc, OP, Sister Angela Marie, OP, and other faculty members to weave, bob, duck, and dodge.

“The spirit of the faculty, staff and students at each school was amazing. … Whether it was spirit hat day, the student and staff variety show, a volleyball game between students and staff, classes celebrating the 100th day of school, a student and staff basketball game, “buddy” bingo, “tacky twins” day, or student-faculty dodge ball, it was really great to see the interaction between the students and faculty. Everyone had a great time,” said Marie Garvey, administrative assistant to schools superintendent Sister Mary Marta Abbott.

“National Catholic Schools Week is just a sample of the faith, knowledge, and service that our schools provide. We have enthusiastic and dedicated teachers and support staff that work very hard to make the Catholic school experience for the children an enriching and rewarding one,” Ms. Garvey said. “They are constantly working with and guiding the students on their continuous service projects throughout the year. Students are raising money for the poor, collecting food for food pantries, “Reading Across America,” holding bake sales to benefit Catholic Charities, Project Homeless Connect, collecting blankets, gloves, warm hats, socks and money for Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a baby shower-pep rally to benefit the Pregnancy Help Center, and a ponytail-cutting event to benefit cancer patients. These are just a few of the many service projects our students are involved in throughout the year.”

The 10 schools in the Diocese of Knoxville are Notre Dame High School, St. Jude and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga, St. Dominic in Kingsport, St. Mary in Johnson City, St. John Neumann in Farragut, St. Mary in Oak Ridge, Sacred Heart and St. Joseph in Knoxville, and Knoxville Catholic High School.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 2.1 million students are currently educated in more than 6,600 Catholic schools around the country. Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Neb., who is chairman of the USCCB Committee on Education, said Catholic school students receive an excellent, faith-filled education that prepares them for the challenges of higher education and a competitive world.

An estimated 99 percent of students in Catholic schools graduate from high school and 85 percent of Catholic school graduates attend college.

“Our schools have educated millions of young people over the years by providing them a superior academic background, always pointing the way to eternal life,” Archbishop Lucas said. “The success of Catholic schools in handing on the faith, generation after generation, is a bright light in the history of the Church in the United States.”

According to Archbishop Lucas, the heart of the apostolate of Catholic education is the mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He said Catholic schools provide a rich environment of faith and learning where students experience how much God loves them in Christ.

“They are free to express their own love for God in prayer and the celebration of the sacraments and to express love of neighbor in a community where each is respected as a gift from God,” he said. “Our students hear Jesus inviting them to be his followers and friends, and they learn how to respond to him with generosity and faith.”

The observance of Catholic Schools Week began in 1974, and 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the annual event.

In addition to faculty, staff and students, parents also take an active role in the weeklong event and are central to its success. Parents at St. Dominic joined faculty and staff in making up the audience for the variety show and were enthusiastic in their applause and in capturing photos and video.

To show their appreciation, Knoxville Catholic High School and St. Mary Oak Ridge parents prepared multi-course luncheons for faculty and staff that included homemade salads, soups, main courses, side dishes, and desserts.

In fact, faculty and staff at each diocesan school praised the parents who work hard to support the education programs. That feeling appears to be mutual.

“In spite of the weather-related hiccups, I really thought Catholic Schools week was a rousing success. The joy, love, and spirit that makes St. Mary School such a special place to learn and grow was absolutely palpable and contagious to all who graced her halls,” said St. Mary Oak Ridge parent Colleen Cardwell. “I must say that, as a 26-year parishioner, I feel this great energy has much to do with our current ‘batch’ of Sisters assigned to our campus. Their presence has created such a faithful and loving cohesion within the student body, and the parish as a whole.”

The role of women religious at diocesan schools has been growing and is an important thrust of Bishop Richard F. Stika. The Religious Sisters of Mercy, Dominicans and Evangelizing Sisters have education and administrative roles within several of the schools.

And their attention to the Catholic faith and education, and an ability to combine the two for an especially effective curriculum is having an impact on students.

“Catholic schools are a privileged place for sharing the gospel, not only with the students, but with their parents, siblings, grandparents — you can’t say where the influence ends,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

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