Essay contest entrants love their Catholic schools

To celebrate the gift of Catholic school education, Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of Catholic Schools, sponsored a Catholic Schools Week essay contest for kindergarten-through-grade-12 students in any of the 10 Catholic schools.

Students were asked to write on what Catholic school means to them and to describe in their own words the benefits of attending Catholic school and the impact of Catholic school education on their life now and in the future. Students competed against students in their own grade level. There were more than 270 entries. Students in kindergarten through second grade were encouraged to illustrate their writing, and students in grades three through five were asked to write in cursive or use the computer for a final copy. Winners were selected based on evaluative criteria, including their grammatical and expressive-writing ability, creativity, and how closely the content captures or exemplifies the mission of Catholic schools: to prepare scholars, leaders, and saints. Listed below are excerpts from the essays with a little about each of the winners.

Ian Ceballos, kindergarten student from St. Joseph School in Knoxville, shared his reasons for loving St. Joseph. He stated, “I love St. Joseph because my teachers read to us. Our school has different cultures.” Henri Sowards, kindergarten student also from St. Joseph, shared his love by saying, “We can pray.” Any schoolteacher knows that a key part of any school day is lunch. First-grade student Billy Zengel, St. Joseph, stated emphatically, “We have the best lunches and the BEST part is the blessing.” Billy also loves “the singing at Mass.”

Second-grade winner Gabriel (Gabe) Parrilla from St. Mary School in Oak Ridge wrote that he loves his Catholic school “because the teachers care for us. Also I get to go to the chapel and see God.” Gabriel loves that “the Fathers come to our classroom to talk to us. And his friends are nice.” Emilia Stitz and Sadie Pellegrin, both second-grade students at St. Mary, wrote about their love of the atrium and being able to pray to Jesus. St. Mary School has an atrium for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that is a focal point of the school.

The message of God’s love and infinite forgiveness was beautifully conveyed by third-grade student Alexis Koronka when she said that “Catholic school has taught me that I do not have to be perfect because God loves me anyway. Catholic school teaches us how to forgive each other. When we make a mistake, the teachers help us to learn from them. Catholic school makes me feel safe and loved every day.”

Fourth-grader Harper Widener shared that “the teachers teach us all we need to know about God from the time of Adam and Eve to Jesus’ resurrection. This will make us better Christians in adulthood.” And fifth-grade student Isabelle Swindeman wishes she went to a bigger school, but then she remembers that other schools are not Catholic schools. She shared how the school pushes her to be a better person and shared how she instituted a fundraiser called Art for the Heart. Giving to others has taught her how she wants to live her life. She also shared about reading the book about the Afghanistan girl that could not go to school, Malala. She stated, “Whenever I have a bad day or get tired of school, I imagine if someone took away my right to go to school. I love school.”

Eliana Barker was a new sixth-grade student at St. John Neumann School in Farragut. She wrote in her winning essay that Catholic school has already made a big impact on her life. “I made new friends who were very welcoming to me as new students. They have taught me about kindness to others by showing they really care about me. Catholic school has given me so many opportunities that I didn’t have before like art, Spanish, and music. My teachers have learning games to help the students understand the topic in a fun way. These new experiences have pushed me to explore new interests. I have learned to share Christ’s love.”

For Mary Zengel, seventh-grade winner, she “can learn things in the light of my faith.” She also wrote about the sense of community and stated that “there are no bullies, ‘mean girls,’ or groups like that at our school. I think going to a Catholic school will help me stay in the Church my whole life because I learned about and was allowed to talk about my faith at school.” For Nathan Jungels, Catholic school demonstrates excellence. The St. Jude School eighth-grade student stated that Catholic school has taught him that “greatness will never be achieved overnight, in morality nor general and social life. Greatness only emerges from arduous labor, hope, and faith in God, and most importantly, truly wanting and reaching for success.” This school represents his “hope for a bright and successful future.”

The three winners at the high school level candidly revealed their struggles and the changes that have occurred in their lives because of Catholic school. Andrew Chapman, Notre Dame High School, stated, “When I first came to Notre Dame, I was instantly welcomed. I had no friends, all of which I left in Georgia. The teachers care so much more here and help me learn how I need to learn. They are nice and friendly and even make jokes with me.” In his previous school, Andrew did not feel that he always got the help that he needed, but the teachers at his Catholic school give the care and attention that he needs, and he found that his grades stayed the same—they were always A’s—but the amount he learned grew astronomically.

Rylie Lumley confided that as a non-Catholic the concept of Catholicism intimidated her. She had not been very religious before enrolling at Notre Dame High School. On her first day, she heard Father Chris Manning speak at an all-school Mass. Through the following weeks she began to listen more. “I paid more attention to the words he was saying. I stopped listening to his words from a religious standpoint, but from a general life standpoint; it is simply the want and intention to be a better person. I am truly happy with my education at this school, and the happiness I have gained since transferring here is something I never thought I would find.” Gracie Wade also shared how her “faith in God has risen,” and she has pushed herself to seek out ways she can live through the eyes of God. “They motivated us to go out and individually find our place with God and understand that every experience is different.” Gracie has found her experience at her Catholic school has made her life more fulfilling.

“These students are only a few students who have shared their voices about the transformation that occurs each day in our Catholic schools,” Mrs. Prater said. “Catholic schools make a difference in the lives of students and families every day. To experience this difference, we invite you to visit one of our 10 Catholic schools in the diocese.”


List of essay contest winners

  • Kindergarten winner: Ian Ceballos, St. Joseph School, Knoxville
  • Kindergarten honorable mention: Henry Sowards, St. Joseph School
  • First-grade winner: Billy Zengel, St. Joseph School
  • Second-grade winner: Gabriel Parrilla, St. Mary School, Oak Ridge
  • Second-grade honorable mention: Emilia “Millie” Stitz, St. Mary School, Oak Ridge
  • Second-grade honorable mention: Sadie Pellegrin, St. Mary School, Oak Ridge
  • Third-grade winner: Alexis Koronka, St. Joseph School
  • Third-grade honorable mention: Johnny Zengel, St. Joseph School
  • Fourth-grade winner: Harper Widener, St. Joseph School
  • Fifth-grade winner: Isabelle Swindeman, St. Joseph School
  • Sixth-grade winner: Eliana Barker, St. John Neumann School, Farragut
  • Sixth-grade honorable mention: Ross Fox, St. Joseph School
  • Seventh-grade winner: Mary Zengel, St. Joseph School
  • Eighth-grade winner: Nathan Jungels, St. Jude School, Chattanooga
  • Eighth-grade honorable mention: Ryan Fillauer, St. Jude School
  • Eighth-grade honorable mention: Gracie Gicakara, St. Jude School
  • Eighth-grade honorable mention: Megan Steere, St. Jude School
  • High school winner: Andrew Chapman, Notre Dame High School, Chattanooga
  • High school winner: Rylie Lumley, Notre Dame High School
  • High school winner: Gracie Wade, Notre Dame High School

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