Students gather for prayer in front of the grotto of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, on "National School Walkout" day. Joe Moore photo
Students gather for prayer in front of the grotto of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, on "National School Walkout" day. Joe Moore photo

By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor

Voices and prayers bring about change.

That was one message from teenagers within the Diocese of Trenton as their voices joined those of tens of thousands across the United States March 14 for "National School Walkout," an event for public and nonpublic students alike to show solidarity with victims of school violence.

Exactly one month after the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead, students in six of the Diocese’s schools – Donovan Catholic, Toms River; St. John Vianney, Holmdel; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Holy Cross Academy, Delran; St. Rose, Belmar, and Notre Dame, Lawrenceville – gathered on their respective campuses to pray for a safe environment in all schools.

“Let’s pray for God to empower us to be the voices for those who cannot speak,” said Eileen Hart, moderator of Notre Dame’s Celebrate Life Club, before seniors Julianna Okupski and Trystan Crichton led almost 100 students and some adults in a prayer for victims and peace as well as the Rosary outside in the school’s grotto.

Photo Gallery: Notre Dame High School Prayer Service

“We are in distress, we are in anguish,” Okupski  said, opening the event in prayer. “Our tears are bitter as once again the lives you have created are disrespected, destroyed … We pray for the dead, for the families and friends in grief. We pray for the living. May the healing begin.”

Among those in attendance was Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. “I was deeply moved to stand with the students in Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville as we prayed the Rosary for an end to gun violence in our schools and remembered its victims,” he said.

Okupski, founder of the school’s Celebrating Life Club, organized the prayer event.

“I knew it was necessary for us to recognize the students who lost their lives in Florida and around the world due to gun violence,” she said “We are a respect life club, and this concerns all aspects of life.”

Okupski, who expressed anguish at the destruction of innocent life in Florida, said, “As Catholics, we have to make sure that we spread the news about how to protect life and the dignity of everyone around us.”

On the issue of gun violence, she said, “It’s going to be political, but we have to make sure we stand our ground and protect life and the dignity of everyone around us.”

In a statement on the students’ efforts to address gun violence, Bishop O’Connell pointed to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is urging a halt to partisanship and calling on all to advance measures that will protect human life, especially students and educators.

“In its truest sense,” the Bishop said, “the effort to curb gun violence reflects our Church’s teaching about the need to respect the dignity and sanctity of every human life.   

“I don’t think the answer is to put guns in the hands of teachers but to restrict gun use by the deranged, disgruntled and disturbed. Our government cannot ignore its responsibility any longer. We must keep our kids safe,” he said.

“I support our students who participated in today’s exercises. These prayer services today, and the advocacy efforts that students in even more of our schools will pursue in the weeks to come, offer all of us a powerful witness,” the Bishop continued. “They serve to remind us that we are compelled to stand up for the protection of human life in all things, and that we must begin all of our efforts with prayer, asking God to give us strength, patience, compassion and understanding.”

Sense of Duty for Notre Dame 

Citing the violence in Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., and the Orlando nightclub massacre, Crichton, a fellow Celebrating Life Club member, said the Florida school shooting was just one in a long list of violent events.

“It just keeps going on and on,” she said. “People make a huge argument about guns, but I think people forget lives are being lost. As Catholics, we are here to respect life, and we came here to honor those 17 lives and pray for their families.

Reflecting on how the Notre Dame community recently lost two students to suicide, Crichton said, “Our school community has experienced the loss of two school members, and that was devastating. I can’t even imagine what 17 students is like.”

“This is the least we can do, coming out in the cold,” she continued. “We’re all shivering, but that doesn’t surmount to the pain those families and friends are feeling.”

James Elwell, a junior who walked to the grotto on crutches, said he felt it was his duty to attend the prayer event.

“We have to be there for those who can’t – for victims of gun violence, for those who would have wanted change had they been here,” he said. “We are the upcoming generation. Eventually, we are going to be the ones who have the voice, who have the say, and I think sooner or later we have to do something. These victims shouldn’t be in vain. These shouldn’t be reoccurring events.”

“We want to make sure lives aren’t cut short,” he added. “Through our Catholic faith, we need to work to do as much as we can to preserve the lives that could be saved through reform.”

Senior Anissa Figaro said students across the country shouldn’t be riddled with fear to attend school.

“I think it’s ridiculous that this is a problem that’s been happening and keeps happening because we don’t do anything about it,” she said. “Even if it’s with a simple walkout, we’re showing that this is not OK. I think that walking out and standing together shows how much of a change we’re willing to bring and the fight we’re willing to fight to bring about that change.”

About the increasing number of school shootings, senior Alexandra Peltier said, “You should feel safe at school, a place where we should be learning. You shouldn’t have to be constantly worried.”

“This situation can’t be swept under the rug,” she said. “[Columbine and Sandy Hook] were a tragedy, and then everybody just goes on with their lives while the families of the victims are told to move on. That’s not OK. Something needs to be done about this.”

Okupski – whose closing prayer included the words, “As we weep over the dead and injured in Orlando, in anguish, we recognize the blood stains of hatred” – said the current school violence goes beyond politics and instead needs prayer and discerning.

“I think it should be everyone’s responsibility to at least reflect on the lives that were lost,” she said.

“I hope people realize we are doing this to be strong,” Okupski said, shivering in the windy, 30-degree weather. “We need to strive to make sure everyone realizes that we’re all unique and we’re all children of God.”

Meaningful Moments in Donovan Catholic 

In Donovan Catholic, students from the Student Council and National Honor Society created a "Prayer for Peace and Healing" service that took place in the school gym. On a stage adorned in purple, Cristiaan Dailey, Student Council president , led the group in prayer. The assembly included a solemn reading of the Florida victims’ names and a long pause, after which, a candle was lit before the next name was read.

National Honor Society student Isabella Villanueva said the reverent reading of names gave the 700 students in attendance the silence needed to reflect.

“It gave us individual time to really question what we should be doing and think about what our thoughts should be like on issues like this [school violence],” she said.

Villanueva went on to perform a skit with Father Scott Shaffer, the school’s director, in which the two portrayed a family affected by the Florida shootings. Father Shaffer played a father whose daughter, Villanueva, is a student at the Florida school during the attack. Once she escapes and the two reunite, it’s time for a conversation on God’s will, action and prayer.

“Why aren’t we doing anything about it?” Villanueva asks her “father” on the issue of guns and violence.

“We have to pray for guidance before we act,” he responds.

Father Shaffer said one of the main points of the play was to get across an important message: “We go to God, who is the author of truth. We go to God in prayer for his guidance so we don’t act, we respond.”

Father Shaffer, pastor in St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, also presented a recording of an original song composed and performed by himself, the campus minister and the parish music ministry, titled “The Most We Can Do.”

“Arms linked with courage and hearts bound by love, swords into plowshares to sow a new day, we walk in the hope of a blessed tomorrow, where your peace rains upon all,” read the song’s lyrics.