By Katherine Long | Editor

Students, staff, and supporters sang the praises of Catholic education Jan. 25 as more than 300 guests gathered for the diocese’s 13th Annual Light the Way Scholarship Dinner at the Marriott Downtown Syracuse.

A night to honor Catholic education and the individuals who make it shine, the Light the Way dinner has raised more than $250,000 for tuition assistance for Catholic school students since its inception — funds in addition to the nearly $1 million awarded annually through HOPE Appeal and financial aid funds. Some 4,400 students are enrolled in the diocese’s 22 Catholic schools and about 60 percent receive some level of need- or merit-based financial aid, according to the Catholic Schools Office.

Students’ musical talents provided some of the evening’s brightest moments, from the cool stylings of the Bishop Grimes Jr./St. High School Jazz Band to the impressive pipes of the Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School Concert Choir to the video of adorable students from across the diocese taking turns on verses of “This Little Light of Mine.

The night culminated with the presentation of awards to two honorees.

Tara Nolan, a parent volunteer at St. Mary’s Academy in Baldwinsville, received the Superintendent’s Service Medal Award. The award is given to a “member of the school community that has demonstrated a significant amount of service to a school, and is someone who promotes the mission of Catholic education” in the Diocese of Syracuse.

Tara Nolan (with Superintendent William Crist) received the Superintendent’s Service Medal Award at the 13th annual Light the Way Scholarship Dinner Jan. 25.

Nolan — mother of St. Mary’s alums Thomas, Mary, and Katie and current students Jonny and Maggie — has been part of the school community for 10 years. She recounted for the crowd the special St. Mary’s moments that have stuck with her over the years, from students and families supporting each other in tough times to celebrating together the happy news of a new sibling’s arrival.

But as she saw enrollment at the school start to decline over the years, Nolan explained, she decided she wanted to do more to help. For the past two-and-a-half years, she has worked with St. Mary’s Principal Renae Henderson on marketing efforts to better share all St. Mary’s has to offer and boost enrollment.

“I have witnessed so many of those beautiful moments because I’ve been there for so long, but we really need to find ways for our parents and prospective families to see what we do and why Catholic education is different and valuable and important,” Nolan said.

And those efforts are now bearing fruit: “Last year at this time we had 102 students; today we have 147,” Henderson said following the dinner.

Nolan took on a role, without question or pay, Henderson noted, “and did so with a smile on her face.”

“I believe, truly believe, that we are where we are today because of her,” she added.

Bishop Robert J. Cunningham was presented with the 2019 Light the Way Award. The award is given to a “person or group of people who have had a significant influence on the life of Catholic education.”

In presenting the award, diocesan Superintendent William Crist called Bishop Cunningham “a light that has been shining in our schools throughout his time in Syracuse” and noted that the bishop “sees our schools as a vital tool in the new evangelization,” a mission that fosters the future of the Church.

“During his personal visits to our schools — whether celebrating Mass with our students, dedicating or blessing a new program or expansion on our schools, or just stopping by to be part of a day in the life of a Catholic school in the 21st century — Bishop Cunningham brings a presence of joy, of love, and the spirit of the Lord to each of our schools,” Crist said.

Chancellor and Director of Communications Danielle Cummings also offered reflections on Bishop Cunningham’s contributions to the diocese in the years since his installation, from his embrace of all forms of communications — including Catholic Sun columns and tweets — to his work to foster vocations to his championing of lay leadership. “Thank you for your service to our schools, thank you for your service to our diocese, thank you for loving the Church and loving God, thank you for your leadership, and most importantly for me, thank you for your friendship.”

In accepting his award, Bishop Cunningham looked back at his own days in Catholic education, commending his parents, his pastor, and the women religious who taught him both precise grammar and steadfast faith. “They reminded us that more important than the civic education we received, more important than getting us into the right high school or the right college, was getting us to heaven,” he said.

The bishop credited his Catholic education — from grammar school through graduate school — for his Catholic worldview, knowing that in every situation the Church is making Christ present through its ministries, parishes, hospitals, and schools.

As important as academic programs are, “our schools do more,” Bishop Cunningham said. “They are and they remain the best vehicle we have for handing on the Catholic faith. They give us a privileged place to encounter Christ and, by God’s grace, an opportunity to live as a companion and disciple of Jesus Christ.” The difference in Catholic schools is not so much in their programs but rather in a person, “Jesus Christ. He is the foundation of our schools, the reason for their being,” the bishop said.

With words of thanks and praise for school faculty, staff, and volunteers and the families who sacrifice to give their children a Catholic education, Bishop Cunningham accepted the award not just for himself but also “on behalf of all of those who are preserving and strengthening Catholic schools here in our beloved diocese.”


How you can help support Catholic education in the diocese

• Enroll your child: Find information on all 22 diocesan Catholic schools at

• Donate to the Light a Child’s Future Fund: This fund, administered by the Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, helps to provide tuition assistance for families across the diocese. The Foundation’s goal is to increase the fund to $2 million, creating an endowed fund that will provide tuition assistance for Catholic school students for years to come.

• Contribute to the HOPE Appeal: In 2018, $675,000 in HOPE Appeal funds was allocated for Catholic school tuition assistance.


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