Sister Dorothy Payne enjoys chatting with a group of TCA Upper School students. Sister Dorothy Payne enjoys chatting with a group of TCA Upper School students. Courtesy photos
Sister Dorothy Payne enjoys chatting with a group of TCA Upper School students. Sister Dorothy Payne enjoys chatting with a group of TCA Upper School students. Courtesy photos

Story by Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent

Every day, those in Catholic schools stand to pray, asking God for blessings and guidance as the school day unfolds.

When troubles arise, such as an illness or loss of a classmate, teacher, administrator or family member, Catholic school communities fervently turn to prayer and attend Mass, ready to provide – or receive – comfort, support and encouragement.  

“It’s what we do,” said Jeanmarie Lamme, director of institutional advancement in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, which is still healing from the sudden passing last spring of Karin Krenek, the much-loved teacher and director of theatre productions who died May 18.

That day Krenek, affectionately known as “Mama K,” was conducting a theatre workshop for the eighth-grade class of St. Joseph School in anticipation of their class trip to see “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway. Students from the high school’s theatre program and alumni on summer break from college came to assist.

During the workshop, Krenek excused herself. Shortly afterward, she was found unconscious in the school chapel. She died later that morning.

“Ninety minutes later, the whole school was at Mass,” Lamme said. “Students, alumni and parents were there. Through texting and social media, the word spread – everyone showed up. Parents came to be with their kids who needed their parents. This what parents do and why Catholic faith works.”

“The whole school came together,” said Brandon Horwin, parishioner of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, and a Donovan Catholic graduate who assisted Krenek that day.  “I will never forget the volume of people willing to hug, give condolences and pray with you. Over 1,000 came to her viewing and funeral in St. Joseph Church.”

Strength in Numbers

Junior Hailey Cassidy remembered the comfort of communal prayer and how students gathered for morning Mass the following Sunday. “We wanted to pray and be together.”

Students in the theatre program – about 30 percent of the school’s population – saw Krenek as being a mother with a ready ear. “The faculty knew how much she meant to us,” Cassidy said.

“I couldn’t work. Teachers were understanding and helped me calm down,” she said.  “Other kids – even those not in theatre – knew how special she was to us and supported us.”

Lamme, too, recalled such compassion. “You could see the students holding up the faculty. Teachers rallied around the kids, but the kids rallied around the teachers. We survived by prayer and faith. We’re still in shock. We pray to get strength and keep moving.”

On Dec. 30, Donovan Catholic sponsored a benefit for the Karin Krenek Memorial Scholarship in which 80 former and current theatre students performed a revue of the plays in Krenek’s  repertoire for a crowd of hundreds. The performers sported T-shirts with her motto on back scrawled in her own handwriting: “You are valued. You are cherished. You are loved. Always loved.”

Power of Prayer

For more  than two years, the Upper and Lower Schools of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, have begun their day praying for the school’s president, Sister of St. Joseph Dorothy Payne, who is currently undergoing treatment for her third bout with cancer.

Twice a month, the students in Christine McCarthy’s English classes in the Upper School use their writing skills to send get well-wishes to Sister Dorothy.

“She’s always appreciative of what she receives,” McCarthy said.

In TCA’s Lower School, the Jesus Club, moderated by fourth-grade teacher Nneka Sumola, meets twice a month to pray and cast its cares on God. Each meeting time is dedicated to writing notes to Sister Dorothy and praying for her and as well as the club’s personal petitions.

“We teach our kids to be brothers and sisters in Christ. We strive to teach the importance of being loving and caring,” Sumola said. “TCA rises up to the challenges that people face. When a family of one of our students lost everything in a house fire, we collected clothing, food, toiletries and housewares to help. We show up as family.”

Although Sister Dorothy has not been physically present at the school this term, she continues to lead through emails, telephone and more.

“She still pays attention to every detail,” said Rose O’Connor, the academy’s director of marketing, who videotaped Sister Dorothy’s Christmas message, which the students viewed during an Advent prayer service.

On the video, Sister Dorothy asserts, “I’m coming back!” then thanks the students for their prayers. She then challenges the TCA community “to think about how you will bring the gift of love to every person close to you.”

The video was a gift to the students, who miss her visits to classrooms and the Upper School’s basketball games, staff said.

To the delight of students and faculty, Sister Dorothy visited TCA during the week of Jan. 14. To help her navigate around the two-story building, Sister Dorothy rode a scooter that was procured by a teacher.

“That is what we do,” O’Connor said. “We pray for those we know and those we don’t, and we help whoever needs it.”