Bright lights, big hearts

Catholic Schools Office to present awards at Light the Way Dinner

By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor

Every year, the Catholic Schools Office gets to make some fun phone calls.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools Christopher Mominey and Schools Office staff members telephone unsuspecting Catholic Schools teachers, volunteers and alumni to tell them that they have been selected to receive awards for their service to Catholic education.  Mominey says he tries to give each honoree a thumbnail sketch of the situation — you’ve been chosen for your great work, you’ll be honored at a dinner — but the news rarely sinks in immediately.

“The recipients are always so surprised and quick to say they don’t deserve it,” Mominey said. “But eventually they say that if it will help the diocese promote Catholic education, they’ll do it. Which is fitting, because that dedication is exactly what we’re honoring them for.”

On Jan. 27, the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Syracuse will host the sixth annual Light the Way Dinner at the Oncenter. The event will bring together students, teachers, families and supporters from all seven counties of the diocese to celebrate and showcase the vibrancy of Catholic schools. Proceeds will benefit the tuition assistance endowment fund that allows the diocese to provide a Catholic education for students who would otherwise be unable to afford one.

The evening’s highlight — aside from musical performances and entertainment provided by students — will be the presentation of awards to seven special members of the Catholic Schools community. Nominated by administrators, faculty and parents and selected by Mominey and Schools Office staff, the honorees will be recognized for their contributions toward furthering Catholic education in the diocese.

The Light Way Award, which honors a person or group for making a “memorable and lasting impact on the life of the diocese due to their work in the field of Catholic education,” will be presented jointly to Father Charles Vavonese and Le Moyne College.

A veteran teacher, guidance counselor and administrator, Father Vavonese served as assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools for more than 25 years. His vision and leadership from that office were integral in establishing key partnerships with Le Moyne: The teacher training and educational leadership programs allow Catholic schools faculty members to pursue their master’s or administration degrees at Le Moyne with grants from the college that cover a third of tuition costs, and the Loyola Scholars program gives students at Catholic high schools the opportunity to earn college credits and scholarships to Le Moyne.

“It was the fulfillment of a dream to bring those programs to Syracuse,” said Father Vavonese. “We were so fortunate that Le Moyne was so enthusiastic.”

Le Moyne will be honored for its commitment to Catholic education in the diocese, exemplified by these programs as well as the latest collaboration: the Le Moyne Teacher Corps at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP) in Syracuse. The program allows CAP to hire Le Moyne master’s degree candidates as teachers; the diocese pays the teachers a small stipend and Le Moyne covers a significant portion of their tuition.

“The long tradition of collaboration between the diocese and Le Moyne has made us true partners,” said Suzanne Gilmour, chair of Le Moyne’s education department. “We are proud to provide opportunities for children who begin [their education] in Catholic schools to continue on to Le Moyne for higher education, and to prepare future teachers and leaders who will look to stay in the community and serve in Catholic schools.”

The Witness to Faith Award will be presented to Sister Harriet Hamilton, OSF, and Josephine Rabideau, two women who exemplify the notion, taken from the church’s 1982 document “Lay Catholics In Schools: Witnesses to Faith,” that a teacher is not just a transmitter of knowledge but rather an “‘educator’ — one who helps to form human persons.”

Looking back, Sister Harriet said, she always knew she wanted to teach. She held a variety of positions over her 52 years in education, including English teacher, librarian and principal; she retired in 2008 after spending 22 years as principal of St. Mary’s School in Cortland and says she misses working with the children every day.

“Sister Harriet is a real gift,” said Mominey. “For many, she is the face of Catholic education in Cortland County. And she is St. Mary’s Cortland.”

Rabideau, too, knew early on that she wanted to be a teacher. Now in her 12th year as a religion teacher and spiritual life coordinator at Bishop Grimes Prep in Syracuse, Rabideau says she is “always replenished and recharged by working with high school students.” And in the moments when she feels overwhelmed by the job, she remembers something former Grimes principal Msgr. George Sheehan once told her: “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.”

“[Rabideau] is a very gifted campus minister, able to animate the life of the church within the walls of the school. She is an outstanding example for our students,” said Mominey.

This year’s Superintendent’s Service Medal will be presented to John and Patti Dowd in recognition of their “significant amount of service to the school in the form of volunteer hours” and their work to promote the mission of Catholic education.

John is a board member and president of the Catholic Education Foundation of the Southern Tier, a group of dedicated individuals committed to raising funds to facilitate the mission of Catholic education in the diocese. Patti is a key volunteer in the fundraising functions. John, a graduate of McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester and the University of Notre Dame, strongly believes “Catholic schools have a very important place in our community.” In addition to tuition assistance, the Foundation provides financial support for projects schools are unable to fund on their own, such as upgrading science labs or installing new bleachers. John estimates that, thanks to the efforts of an engaged, active board, the Catholic Education Foundation has been able to raise and give about $100,000 directly to diocesan  schools each year for the last five years.

“The Dowds are wonderful supporters of Catholic education and have been instrumental in reinvigorating the Foundation. We are very blessed to have their support,” said Mominey.

Joseph White, a member of the 1951 graduating class of Utica Catholic Academy, will receive this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award in honor of the way he has “successfully used the values… learned in Catholic schools to make a positive impact on the world in which we live.”

A lifelong and active member of St. Peter’s Parish, White says he attended public grammar school but got to go to Utica Catholic Academy after someone from the neighborhood sponsored him. He has helped to return that favor many times over as a founding member of the Marian Club, an organization that provides tuition assistance for students who would otherwise be unable to attend Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica. Since its founding in 1991, the club,  White says, has provided more than $400,000 in scholarships. All six of White’s children graduated from Catholic schools, and two of his grandchildren are currently enrolled at Notre Dame.

Though others see his decades of service to Catholic education as a model, a humble White says the idea of receiving an award is unbelieveable to him.

“There are so many others who are really deserving…. I’m just doing the things you should do to reciprocate.”

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