First-place winners and runners-up in the diocesan Office of Respect Life’s Poster, Essay and Photo Meme Contest from Mercer County pose with the awards they received March 3 in St. James Church, Pennington. From left, back row, Valerie Navarro and Joel Brodon of Hamilton’s Trenton Catholic Academy, and Elizabeth Italia of Princeton’s St. Paul School; front row, Daniela Rossi and Avyan Gupta, also of the Princeton school. Hal Brown photo

First-place winners and runners-up in the diocesan Office of Respect Life’s Poster, Essay and Photo Meme Contest from Mercer County pose with the awards they received March 3 in St. James Church, Pennington. From left, back row, Valerie Navarro and Joel Brodon of Hamilton’s Trenton Catholic Academy, and Elizabeth Italia of Princeton’s St. Paul School; front row, Daniela Rossi and Avyan Gupta, also of the Princeton school. Hal Brown photo

By Rose O’Connor and Lois Rogers, Correspondents 

Students selected as first-place winners and runners-up in the diocesan Respect Life contest were recognized during Masses March 3 in each of the Diocese’s four counties.

Following the contest theme “Every Life – Cherished, Chosen, Sent,” students in kindergarten through eighth grade expressed their deep desire to protect human life, resulting in award-worthy, heartfelt projects expressed in essays, posters or memes.

Related: Check out the first-place winning entries

Burlington County winners were honored in St. Charles Borromeo Church, Cinnaminson, by Father Daniel Kirk, pastor, as well as Father Joe Noche, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Hainesport, who is chaplain of the Burlington County Respect Life Committee.

“We are called to bear witness to the truth,” Father Kirk said in his homily. “What joy it is to have members of our parish community and the Diocese who are being recognized for their own efforts of bearing truth and bearing good fruit ... These young people have produced essays and posters, speaking to the reality that all human life is indeed precious and valued.”

 “I am so proud of them,” Father Joe Noche said as he took pictures with the winners. “This is a great testament to all that they’re learning about respect life.”

When looking for inspiration for her essay, St. Charles Borromeo School eighth-grader Genevieve McMullen said, “I focused on each word of the theme – cherished, chosen and sent – and then just brought them all together.”

“I drew all of the people around the world and then I thought it would be good to add some animals in there, too,” Bailey Post, second-grader in Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, Maple Shade, said of her creation.

Along with the winners, members of the Burlington County Respect Life Committee were also present at the Mass.

Peg Campbell, Respect Life representative in St. Charles Borromeo Parish, said, “It’s very important to recognize the children and their love for life as they expressed so beautifully in their posters and essays.”

Enthusiasm in Ocean

In St. Peter Church, Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County honorees received applause and encouraging words from Father James O’Neill, Ocean County’s Respect Life chaplain and pastor of St. John Parish, Lakehurst, who celebrated the Mass.

In his homily, Father O’Neill commended the eight students from around Ocean County honored for their pro-life efforts. These are good messages to send, he said, especially with Lent about to begin.

“Today, it’s good for us to see that our children are learning the facts” of this year’s theme. “This is a contest that teaches children that God loves everyone,” Father O’Neill said.

The first-place photo meme created by Dominic Cataldo, seventh-grader in Lakewood’s St. Mary of the Lake Parish, used a baby’s ultrasound image. Cataldo said he created the meme to show that “God wouldn’t choose anyone to be killed.”

Cataldo’s parents, Kristina and Sal Santoro, shared their enthusiasm about his creation. “We are so proud of him being an advocate for life,” his mother said.

“We are doing our best to instill in him how important life is,” Sal Santoro added.

Leah Marchetti of St. Peter School was a first runner-up in the poster contest for grades 6-8. Her drawing showed a mom’s white hand holding a baby’s brown hand.

“I wanted to show how everyone deserves to be loved, and so I decided to have the hands showing the importance of love and life in all cultures,” Marchetti said.

Monmouth’s Good News

Monmouth County winners attended the awards Mass in St. Mary Church, Middletown, receiving accolades from Father Richard Osborn, parochial vicar and chaplain for the Monmouth County Respect Life Committee.

“The contest … is a beautiful way to spread awareness of the need to pray, and to spread the good news that every human life is created in the image and likeness of God and is deserving of life and dignity,” Father Osborn said.

He noted that recent studies show young people at the forefront of the pro-life movement.

“So what better way to spread that Good News of the Gospel [through] them amongst their peers and the world,” he continued, “whether through an essay, poster or online post of some sort?”

Bill Large, a member of the parish Respect Life Committee, said the contest is a blessing.

“It’s important that we keep our youth focused on the respect for all life from conception to natural death – that we keep the pro-life effort going for future generations,” he said.

Both Large and Father Osborn observed that pro-life education must take place in various settings – at home, in the parish and Catholic schools.

“The Church starts at home, so the parents are the ones that should be starting pro-life education,” Large said.

Father Osborn said he hoped that “these children will be a good influence on their friends, parents and other family, as we strive to grow and to protect a culture of life in our Diocese and in our world.”

The Pride of Mercer

In St. James Church, Pennington, honorees from Mercer County received their awards from Father Jarlath Quinn, parochial vicar, who celebrated the Mass.

“Too often we can take life for granted, and look upon life as a problem, instead of looking at it as it truly is: a blessing and a gift from God,” Father Quinn said. “There’s always a great blessing when God gives us life, no matter what … It’s important to see the bigger picture.”

Joel Brodon, a seventh-grader in Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, was runner-up in the grade 6-8 poster category. “I think that all human life is very important, especially babies,” he said, “because you never know – that baby could be the next pope, the next Martin Luther King, the next Malala.”

Daniela Rossi, a fourth-grader in St. Paul School, Princeton, whose poster was runner-up in the grades 3-5 poster category, said, “God created all of us, and we should respect every life because everyone has a purpose.”

Respect Life ministry leader for St. James Parish, Kris Kahn, commented that she enjoyed “seeing the young [people’s] faces … and how much life meant to them.”

“It’s a shame that we have to teach our children to respect life,” she continued. “We have to remember that every human being is … priceless – we can never forget that … I hope that as ministry leaders, we can do that together.”

Rachel Hendricks, diocesan respect life coordinator, said this year’s county Masses reflected a good turnout and a lot of enthusiasm. “It’s good to have them in each county and at Sunday Masses in parishes, and the kids get the public recognition they deserve.”

Video by freelance photographers Hal Brown and Vic Mistretta contributed to this report.