They’re now Fighting Irish alumni

Seniors overcome all kinds of elements to receive their high school diplomas

By Bill Brewer

The 2023-24 school year is now in the history books, and more than 240 graduating seniors at the Diocese of Knoxville’s two high schools are transitioning to the next phases of their lives.

While most graduates in the class of 2024 are moving on to college, others will be entering different disciplines such as trade schools, the workforce, and the military.

At Knoxville Catholic High School, 149 seniors received their diplomas on Friday night, May 17. And at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, 91 seniors earned their diplomas, walking across the stage on Saturday morning, May 18, in the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Prayers for the graduates’ future success were plentiful as were family members and friends who were on hand to support them.

And the graduates themselves were thankful to have accomplished their academic and extracurricular goals and to have overcome environmental challenges such as those induced by COVID and even the weather.

Knoxville Catholic High School president Dickie Sompayrac keeps graduating seniors James Long and Gracie Guess dry as they address their classmates on May 17 during the commencement exercise in the school’s stadium. (Photo Gabrielle Nolan)

A steady rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of Knoxville Catholic grads, who were determined to maintain tradition and hold their commencement ceremony outdoors in the school’s stadium. Notre Dame’s graduates enjoyed a different setting for their commencement, indoors in Chattanooga’s stylish downtown exhibition hall.

Dickie Sompayrac, president of KCHS, said the school’s class of 2024 will be remembered for much, including academic success and athletic prowess, but it also will be remembered for the three members of the class who were baptized into the Catholic Church because of their faith and their experience at KCHS.

In fact, he said, the newly baptized include the Mains family, with father Travis, mother Missey, and children Sydney and London being baptized on Mother’s Day, May 12, at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut. Travis Mains is the head coach of the KCHS girls basketball team, and his wife, Missey, is the assistant coach. Graduating senior Sydney Mains led the girls team to two consecutive state championships.

“You will never fully know how special it was for our school that you guys made the decision to be baptized into the Church. What a testament that is to the mission and to your experience here at KCHS,” Mr. Sompayrac said to the three seniors who entered the Church.

The KCHS president said those experiences and others like them shaped the 2024 graduates into a special class.

“Class of 2024, your legacy is battle-tested. It’s not perfect, but you should be very proud of the fact that you lived our mission to the fullest. I want to end my remarks to our graduates as I do every year, with these inspiring words from Pope Francis, spoken on World Youth Day a few years ago:

“‘If we want to have real meaning and fulfillment as you want and as you deserve, I say to each one of you put on faith, and your life will take on a new flavor. It will have a compass to show you the way. Put on hope, and every one of your days will be enlightened, and your horizon will no longer be dark but luminous. Put on love, and your life will be like a house built on a rock. Your journey will be joyful because you will find many friends to journey with you.’”

It was the 92nd commencement exercise in Knoxville Catholic High School’s history.

In Chattanooga, Deacon Hicks Armor, who has been serving as head of Notre Dame High School for two years, and Father Mike Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland, remarked that 2024 marks a time of change for the school’s administration as well as for the graduating seniors.

Deacon Armor’s term as the interim head of school concludes with the school year’s end as Notre Dame has announced the appointment of Dr. Eric Schexnaildre as the new head of school effective July 1. Dr. Schexnaildre is an NDHS alumnus. The high school also has announced that Melissa Wolff, who is an NDHS faculty member, has been named dean of academics.

Jamie Goodhard, a longtime Diocese of Knoxville educator, has served as the assistant head of school at Notre Dame for the past two years. Her interim term also concludes with the school year’s end.

Father Christopher Manning, who has served as chaplain, teacher, and part of the administrative staff at NDHS since July 2019, has been named parochial administrator of St. Mary Parish in Athens and began his new assignment on June 1.

Father Mike Nolan, who has served as dean of the Chattanooga Deanery and is an alumnus of Notre Dame High School as a member of the class of 1978, delivered remarks to the school’s graduates, acknowledging those who have helped seniors earn their diplomas and contributed to the school’s rich 148-year history, in particular Deacon Armor, Ms. Goodhard, and Father Manning.

“All are going on to different chapters in their lives. All of them selflessly answered the call to serve our school and school system during a critical period of our history. We give thanks for their example and their willingness to put our school over their own wants. May the rewards of their labors and our appreciation go with them,” Father Nolan said.

Father Mike Nolan congratulates graduates at NDHS. (Photo Bill Brewer)

Father Nolan extended congratulations to the seniors for their achievements and hoped their accomplishments would be celebrated and rewarded.

“And may your hearts be overflowing with gratitude for God and all those God provided you to support you in your journey. May your spiritual growth and maturity fostered in those hallowed halls at 2701 Vermont Ave. grow deeper roots every step of your divergent paths, providing a sure foundation to bloom ever brightly as your God-given gifts are sharpened, and polished, and shared in lives of generosity and service,” Father Nolan told the NDHS graduates.

The St. Thérèse of Lisieux pastor then added the parents to the equation.

“May your folks, who lovingly watched you take your first faltering steps and were ever so near to catch you lest you fall, now be assured that your next steps, perhaps far away from their outstretched arms but never far from their hearts or prayers, may your next steps be guided by the moral compass God has given you and we pray we have fostered,” Father Nolan said. “We also pray that you follow this moral compass willingly, shining the way brightly for others to follow.”

Father Nolan shared with the seniors that he still remembers his Notre Dame High School class of 1978 and walking across the stage to receive his diploma.

“I do recall a deep sense of pride and joy and gratitude, tinged with just a bit of sorrow and perhaps a smidgen of fear, that close friends would now be at least geographically distant, that familiar faces perhaps at times taken for granted would no longer surround me, that I would be moving on from a place I knew I belonged to seeking a sense of belonging in the chapters ahead,” he said.

“Gratefully, in all these chapters God has provided. And God will provide. I certainly never predicted, nor would anybody have in my class, that I would one day be called upon to participate in conferring diplomas on future alums of our historic school,” he added.

Father Nolan remarked that Pope Francis has appointed someone with ties to Notre Dame High School to be the next bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop-elect Mark Beckman.

Bishop-elect Beckman taught at the high school during the 1989-90 academic year.

Father Nolan also pointed to the example set by Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” who said yes to God and brought Jesus Christ into the world. He remarked that there is no better role model than the mother of Christ.

He also said he owes much to his alma mater.

“May you, the class of 2024, proudly go forth and shake down the thunder in cheering her name, onward to victory in your future endeavors. Congratulations, and may God bless you,” Father Nolan concluded.

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