Graduates’ photos line the parking lot at Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, during a drive-through ceremony.  Rose O’Connor photo
Graduates’ photos line the parking lot at Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, during a drive-through ceremony. Rose O’Connor photo
As graduation for the Class of 2020 neared, educators and administrators planning farewells for Catholic school students around the Diocese had much to consider, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place.

It didn’t take long for a variety of graduation scenarios to emerge in schools throughout the four-county system. Spurred by technology and ingenuity, virtual baccalaureate, graduation and award ceremonies began taking shape.

Drive-by parades were held, billboards were displayed in the state capital, videos and social media shout-outs were posted online, and congratulatory lawn signs were delivered by the hundreds, marking a year for the Diocese’s graduating 1,411 high-schoolers and 1,105 eighth-graders like no other.

Virtually Incredible

“Even though the graduates had to wear face masks, you could tell they were smiling,” Michael Knowles, Trenton Catholic Academy president, said of the Hamilton school graduates who received diplomas during drive-through festivities May 27 and 28. Students were applauded by faculty and staff, all of whom wore masks and practiced social distancing. TCA aired virtual graduations for seniors and eighth-graders both days as well – the dates and times the ceremonies would have been held in person.

As at many of the schools, lawn signs were handed out so TCA students could post them in their yards, and graduation billboards were posted throughout Trenton and Hamilton. These were the gift of TCA alumni Paul Pennacchi and Vincent Cuilule.

Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, and Ewing’s Villa Victoria Academy released videos May 21 and May 31, respectively – their originally scheduled in-person commencement dates.

CBA honored its 58th graduating class with special commemoration videos that recognized the academic, athletic, service and extracurricular achievements of the students and their “resilience, fortitude and unity” in weathering the circumstances created by the COVID-19 shutdown.

The academy plans to hold an in-person ceremony when each student will be awarded his diploma, but in his salute to the graduates, Principal Ross Fales urged them to focus on the fact that “although we are not able to experience this moment as we traditionally would, remember that CBA is more than just a place; it is a community and a brotherhood you are part of for life.”

That sentiment was echoed by senior Jonathan Abadir, who praised the school for making “me the person I am today.”

“When something like this happens, a virus practically shutting life as we know it, we have to keep marching forward through life,” he said. “The only thing we can control is our reaction to life’s absurdity. Shakespeare said life is a play, and we all play a part in that. If life is truly a play, then the show must go on.”

Villa Victoria Academy posted a teacher sendoff video that included a poem by a Trenton author, a song sung by the teachers, and personal goodbye messages from the teachers to the graduates. The academy’s Facebook page offered a cavalcade of videos and posts about activities, including the “Senior Drive” through the campus which this year, replaced the traditional “Senior Run” graduation event on school grounds.

In Lawrenceville, Notre Dame High School’s virtual graduation ceremony June 7 followed three days of photo-ops May 30-31 and June 1 with seniors and their families. Signed up in groups of 10, the students received their diplomas during the photo sessions at the high school grotto. Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, held a virtual graduation June 6.

Meeting the Challenge

When it came to finding new ways to celebrate “all the final things seniors look forward to,” efforts quickly got underway, said Dr. Edward Gere, principal of Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River. He noted that many of the seniors have been part of the school community – which includes St. Joseph School – since kindergarten.

“They looked forward to senior prom and graduating in St. Joseph Church,” Gere said.

So, for Donovan’s seniors, the buildup to graduation included weeks of video and livestream programs and ceremonies, including an Awards Night and the annual closing Mass, where the class is traditionally blessed by Father G. Scott Shaffer, director of Donovan Catholic and pastor of St. Joseph Parish. These were set to culminate June 15.

Plans in Motion

When Gov. Phil Murphy announced May 22 that schools could begin holding outside graduations in July, a number of school administrators crossed their fingers and began planning.

Margaret Kane, vice principal of St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, said the school is determining the date for an in-person ceremony.

The school did record a Baccalaureate Mass and is streaming it with a Senior Awards Ceremony.

“We want to do as much as we can to celebrate our seniors and all of their achievements over the past four years. … They have left their mark on our community, and we look forward to celebrating them in July,” she said.

Following suit was Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, Delran, which postponed its graduation ceremony until Aug. 1, when it plans to hold commencement on campus.

Middletown’s Mater Dei Prep also plans to hold its graduation on the school campus July 24. The school was scheduled to celebrate with a caravan drive-by June 12, where seniors and their families could receive the applause of faculty and staff, who had dropped off Class of 2020 lawn signs for the seniors and snapped their photos at the time for a commemorative video.

The Red Bank Catholic High School community was carefully monitoring Gov. Murphy’s statements on graduations, too.

“Our virtual graduation was taped and ready to go and aired on June 1,” said Principal Robert Abatemarco. A drive-by-diploma pickup and photo event is planned for July 8. “Hopefully, the students will be able to see each other and celebrate.”

That’s a hope shared by the community of St. Rose High School, Belmar, where the virtual graduation scheduled for June 2 is now scheduled in-person July 6 with keynote speaker St. Rose alumni James Murray, director of the U.S. Secret Service.

Senior Christian Riozzi-Bodine hopes he will be able to attend with his class before leaving July 8 for the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. “Having a pandemic in your senior year is not what you imagine. My expectations of senior year were just enjoying a normal sendoff and closure with my class. The school tried its best in this very challenging time to do that.”