A celebration of faith and education

Diocese of Knoxville campuses participate in Catholic Schools Week

By Gabrielle Nolan

Spelling bees, talent shows, and pep rallies. Tournaments, dress-up days, and special Masses. Fun events and programs such as these marked the 50th anniversary of Catholic Schools Week, which was celebrated Jan. 28–Feb. 3 across the country.

The Diocese of Knoxville boasts 10 Catholic schools, two of which are high schools, and eight of which are primary schools. The schools span the diocese, with locations in Kingsport, Johnson City, Chattanooga, Oak Ridge, Farragut, and Knoxville.

“Catholic Schools Week is a celebration of faith, knowledge, and community, uniting students, educators, families, and parish members in a shared commitment to academic excellence and spiritual development,” said Dr. Caroline Carlin, principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Chattanooga.

Dr. Kelly Mechelke, principal of St. John Neumann School in Farragut, believes that celebrating Catholic Schools Week each year is important.

Mass is in very good hands at St. Jude School. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

“I think because of the time commitment and the dedication that everyone from families to staff put into being a Catholic school and making Catholic schools so great, we need to celebrate every year that dedication and that commitment,” Dr. Mechelke said.

“We celebrate because there is a lot to celebrate!” said Andy Zengel, principal of St. Joseph School in Knoxville.

“St. Joseph and all Catholic schools are called to spread the Good News, and celebrating the many gifts we share is the focus of Catholic Schools Week,” he said. “It is our hope that parishioners, neighbors, and extended family take notice and feel invited to learn more about our schools and more about our Catholic faith.”

The theme of this year’s Catholic Schools Week was “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community.” Several principals shared what that means to them and their schools.

“St. Mary School has been here since 1950 with the mission to unite the school and the parish and the community, so it really is just in the framework of the school; it’s in the feel of the school,” shared Sister Mary John Slonkosky, OP, principal of St. Mary School in Oak Ridge.

“Parents come here and experience that family feel where family is feeling connected, feeling home. So, whether they come to the school and visit or they’ve been here for years, they experience that both times, they have that sense of we’re united here to bring the Lord Jesus to the children through education in a concerted effort, so not just the school but the parish, the incredible support from the parish, from the community at large, from the diocese, and then insert the family that brings those two worlds together. It’s a great theme, it’s a perennial theme, and we’re happy that we have this school to give to our children,” she said.

St. Dominic School principal Andrew Cooper believes that the school unites faith and community in two different manners, both internally and externally.

“Internally, our ministry is devoted to offering our parishioners an educational environment where their children will not only have the benefit of the best education, but also provide students with daily encounters with Jesus Christ, in intended and unintended ways,” he said.

“Externally, the ministry of St. Dominic School serves as a conduit in which St. Dominic Parish reaches out to the community and offers a unique educational experience for Catholic and non-Catholic families alike. Being in a community that is overwhelmingly non-Catholic, SDCS is a unique flash point where non-Catholic families choose to send their children for a great education, and as an intentional by-product, get to see the beauty of the Catholic faith on display and how it works in the lives of their children,” Mr. Cooper continued. “We currently have a handful of school families that are not Catholic but have either come into the Church or are in the process of coming into the Church as a direct result of the blessings of faith they see working in their children.”

Knoxville Catholic High School president Dickie Sompayrac echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s interesting because [Jan. 18-25] I think worldwide we celebrated a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While we are predominately Catholic here at Catholic High School, we have lots of kids here from other faith traditions, lots of Protestant students and staff as well, and so I think it was really a continuation of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and specifically as a Catholic school,” he said.

Teamwork on display at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

“I always tell people the word Catholic means universal, and I think our community is one that embraces people from lots of different faith traditions, so it’s really a week to celebrate who we are, the universal appeal of the Catholic faith, and just how we have more in common than we do differences with our brothers and sisters from other faith denominations. Catholic Schools Week is really a week to celebrate what makes us special as Catholic schools, and I think part of that is that we don’t just serve Catholic kids and families, we serve all who want a Catholic education,” he added.

To reach out to their communities, many students at various schools wrote letters to local organizations to thank them for the good work they do and the difference they make.

Sixth-graders at Sacred Heart Cathedral School wrote letters of gratitude to St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, which provides free health care to the uninsured in rural East Tennessee.

Ellie from Mrs. Suttles’ class wrote, “I have been learning about what you do, it’s so special. Thank you for making these people seen, cared about, and loved. All of y’all are so special and you have inspired me to help others. The people you serve probably feel so special because you go and take your time to be with them with a smile on your face. I am praying for you, the work you do, and the people you serve.”

Many of the school principals shared the ongoing initiatives and goals for each of their respective schools.

“Recently we’ve taken a strong initiative just with school safety,” said Joshua Overton, principal of St. Jude School in Chattanooga, noting that access control, cameras, and rewriting policy were important improvements.

“We’re also looking at how we’re going to upgrade our campus, always looking to advance curriculum in the right direction … and we’re placing a heavy emphasis on integrating religion into the whole curriculum, so how can we take that, the foundation of who we are, and expound on it,” Mr. Overton shared.       Mary Sue Kosky, principal of Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Knoxville, noted that the annual fund is supporting STREAM initiatives in the school.

“A STREAM initiative is exciting because it integrates science, technology, religion, engineering, arts, and mathematics into the curriculum, fostering a holistic education,” she said. “This approach aligns with our school’s mission, encouraging students to develop these disciplines within a framework that values ethics, morality, and spiritual growth. It provides a well-rounded educational experience that not only prepares students academically but also nurtures the whole child.”

Dr. Carlin said at Our Lady of Perpetual Help they are seeking to “expand our outdoor facilities to include outdoor restrooms and storage.”

“By adding an outdoor storage facility for athletics and recess, we are opening up indoor spaces that can be used for classrooms and meeting spaces,” she said. “The addition of outdoor bathrooms allows us to keep closer watch on our students during recess to prevent them from traversing the parking lot.”

Mary Ann Deschaine, Ed.S.,  superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools, visited all 10 campuses during Catholic Schools Week.

“It’s been a wonderful week,” she shared. “It’s been very exciting to see all the kids actively engaged in their activities, the spirit that is there with the kids within each of the different buildings, and the traditions of what they’re celebrating. It’s been a fun experience of traveling throughout the diocese.”

Mrs. Deschaine believes that it is vital to celebrate Catholic Schools Week annually because “it acknowledges who we are and what we do.”

“We thank those people who support us,” she said. “We’re able to thank different organizations that come in and speak with us; we’re able to thank our parents, our faith communities, our parish communities. But it also acknowledges that we’re different than other schools, that we have our own identity, and it’s all centered around who we are and what we do.”

“I want to thank the teachers for their commitment to Catholic school education,” Mrs. Deschaine continued. “I think without them we wouldn’t be able to celebrate what we do and accomplish as much. We give them a goal of teaching Jesus, and they do. It’s there within the mission of each of our different Catholic schools.”

For more information regarding the Diocese of Knoxville’s Catholic schools, visit dioknox.org/schools.

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