Celebrate Catholic Schools Week: January 29-February 4

By Dc. Tom Cuskey

There was a special energy generated by a diocesan Catholic school gathering on a recent cold, gray morning in Syracuse. No, we’re not talking about a classroom of young students feeding off each other’s excitement and enthusiasm. This energy source consisted of the leadership power-trio of administrators who were sharing victories and accomplishments to be celebrated during Catholic Schools Week 2023. 

“Catholic schools are growing!” exclaimed Amy Sansone, the Director of Leadership Development & Mission Effectiveness for the office. Sansone,  Superintendent William Crist and Assistant Superintendent Donald Mills were swapping positive stories as they pored over reports and other pertinent materials that tell the story of success that diocesan schools are enjoying. 

“There’s growth in programming, growth in evangelization, growth in activities,” added Mills. In several cases, programs and ideas that were implemented in schools as reactions to COVID-forced changes have since blossomed into new avenues of opportunity for students and teachers alike. 

Crist pointed out that growth is experienced in all of the school facilities in the diocese, not just in the urban centers like Syracuse, Binghamton and Utica. “We talk about these schools as outpost schools. For example, there’s only one Catholic school in Chenango County. There’s only one in Oswego County,” he said. “These are important areas for us and to make sure they are alive and well and vibrant is important.”

With assistance from the schools office, we have put together a few snapshots from various schools to demonstrate the growth and vibrancy that’s part of this year’s Catholic Schools Week celebration.

Growth in numbers

We’ll start with one number: 81,337. That is the total number of service hours performed by students in diocesan schools during the 2021-2022 academic year. It represents a whopping 31% increase over the previous year. While every school has seen service increases, Seton Catholic Central School in Binghamton led the pack with 12,115 service hours recorded by students during that period. 

“I think two people really are to praise for our great service numbers,” said Principal Patrick Monachino. “First is Sister Brigid O’Mahoney who helps to organize many service opportunities.  Our students did a great job at preparing a house for a refugee family moving to the area. The other person is Mrs. Anna Wright, our Earth Science teacher and also Key Club coordinator.  She is constantly providing our students with opportunities for service.” 

Monachino said that most projects serve needs in their local area but one — a “Hoops for Haiti” basketball tournament — helps charities and orphanages on the impoverished island. 

Growth in scholarships

Joan Spector, the director of Christ the King Retreat House, also lends a strong hand to the Catholic schools’ effort in fundraising for scholarships by helping to oversee the primary annual event of the campaign. 

“My role is really helping with running the golf tournament, which is a big, big way that the Catholic schools raise scholarship money,” she said, referring to the “Light the Way” June outing held at Turning Stone in Verona. “It is one way that locally we can impact the Catholic school scholarships fund in a positive way.” At the 2022 event, the impact on attendees of the scholarships’ true value was made very clear by a particular foursome of Catholic high school students who shared at dinner what their educational experience, funded with scholarships, meant to them. 

“They shared how their faith was important to them and that they received a quality education,” Spector said. “They were very positive and were good spokespeople in how they conducted themselves and showed what a great benefit a Catholic school education is.”

This year’s tournament will be held on Monday, June 19. Follow The Catholic Sun for details as the event draws near. 

Growth in programming

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly introduced a new level of drama into school institutions and programs, literally so at Most Holy Rosary School in Syracuse.  

“We brought our new drama program to our school in the first year of COVID, when we couldn’t have music,’’ Sherri Stone, principal of Most Holy Rosary school told us. “We still wanted our students to have some type of opportunity in the arts, and it stems from my love for the theater.” 

Stone said theater had always been a big part of her family. The MHR family, when faced with a programming challenge, embraced the opportunity to try something new. Every student in the pre-K/3 to grade six school got involved. Students wrote plays, acted, helped with scenery and staging and more. The benefits achieved went much deeper than just putting on a performance.

“I’ve noticed more confidence in our students; their creative skills, their imagination, their verbal and nonverbal communication skills have really come to play here,” Stone pointed out. “They’re not afraid to get in front of people and talk or sing. They’ve learned to concentrate more with the activities, as well as build teamwork, collaboration, small groups.”

Caitlin Friedberg is the drama program teacher, bringing years of experience to students who were very new to the process. “I started off with the basics, just listening and following directions and pushing students outside the box,” she said. “That’s the big thing that I focus on, allowing yourself to be brave and to try new things.” 

Growth in faith

A group that started with only a few students by a Felician Sister in 2008 continues to grow and blossom as students at Notre Dame Elementary School in Utica come to better know our Blessed Mother.

The Children of Mary Club now boasts about 66 students at the pre-K through fifth grade school according to fourth  grade teacher Justine Testa. In addition to teaching and being part of the school’s vocation team (and mom to a Notre Dame student), Testa helps direct the club’s activities. 

“The purpose is for the children to get a better understanding and love of Mary and the prayers we offer through her.” Testa said students come to an “understanding that most of the time Mary has appeared to children.” She was with Sister Therese Marie Kozz at the beginning. “She started after school with the oldest students,” Testa explained. “Now we’ve even started allowing kindergarten students. We’ve actually had students come to us and ask us to be a part of the club just because they want to learn about Mary.”

Students do in-school pilgrimages and activities as well as bring Marian crafts and other items to nursing home residents. Whether the students realize it or not, they have become evangelists as part of the activities they engage in, like a traveling Blessed Mother lesson students can take home for a weekend to share with family. 

Sondra Nassar is school librarian and a member of their sacramental team. She sees such power and grace growing in the faith of participants, as they grow in their knowledge. 

“We have a student who’s a fifth grader and has been with the club since second grade. Just to see the innocence on her face. The sincerity that you get from them, to watch them grow,” Nassar said. “We have another little one who started with us last year as a pre-K. You could see that pure joy on her face, that maybe she didn’t know the whole prayer, but knew how to remain there and pray. It’s just the looks of their faces.”

School Principal Mary Rossi offered that the experience of the Children of Mary “is unbelievable. It’s the power, you can just feel it when they are saying that rosary. It’s it just resonates through the rooms.”

The Catholic Sun will have more coverage of Catholic Schools Week in our February 16 edition. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram and at thecatholicsun.com to stay in touch between print editions. 

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