Marta Pawka proudly receives her Donovan Catholic diploma from Father Scott Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River. Looking on at left is Dr. Edward Gere, Donovan Catholic principal, and Dan Duddy, pastoral minister of athletics and guidance counsellor. Michael Glenn photo
Marta Pawka proudly receives her Donovan Catholic diploma from Father Scott Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River. Looking on at left is Dr. Edward Gere, Donovan Catholic principal, and Dan Duddy, pastoral minister of athletics and guidance counsellor. Michael Glenn photo

By Mary Morrell | Contributing Editor

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” wrote American author John Augustus Shedd nearly 100 years ago. 

His words have become an analogy for the need to move forward, take risks, have faith and be confident, all of which describe the ambitions and abilities of this year’s graduates as they face head-on the opportunities and challenges of life beyond Catholic high school.

“They are going to make a difference,” said Red Bank Catholic principal Robert Abatemarco, describing the future promise not only for his own graduating students but for the more than 1,500 graduates who were celebrated during Baccalaureate Masses and commencement ceremonies across the Diocese of Trenton.

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Graduates hailed from 11 Catholic diocesan, parish and private high schools serving Mercer, Monmouth, Burlington and Ocean counties, including Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, Delran; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; Mater Dei Prep, Middletown; Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton; Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing; St. Rose High School, Belmar, and Donovan Catholic, Toms River.

In keeping with his custom, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., was able to celebrate Baccalaureate Masses with several of the graduating classes, including those of St. John Vianney High School, St. Rose High School, Red Bank Catholic High School and Christian Brothers Academy. In addition, JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of schools, took part in a number of commencement exercises, delivering an address to the graduates of Notre Dame High School, and congratulating the graduates of Red Bank Catholic, St. John Vianney and St. Rose High Schools, along with Trenton Catholic Academy.    

From Intention to Action

Having studied in an environment where the day begins with prayer, and Catholic ideals and beliefs are fully integrated into daily life and lessons, graduates had the opportunity to excel in academics, sports, leadership, music, art and theater. Some were recognized with awards, others worked diligently to attain their personal best. Together, these graduates were awarded more than $213 million in scholarships and grants.

Across the board, “they brought pride to our school,” said Kathy D’Andrea, vice principal of Donovan Catholic.

In addition to many varied achievements, graduates from all the Catholic high schools began making a difference in their communities well before they walked the stage to receive their diplomas.

Graduates routinely demonstrated their desire to live the Gospel, dedicating thousands of hours in such endeavors as serving elderly and disabled veterans, children and seniors; working as hospice volunteers; helping to save a soup kitchen while the founder recovered from a heart attack, or spending Easter vacation in the Peruvian mountains helping local people construct fresh water pipes to irrigate their villages.

This global vision is an important part of preparing students in the Catholic tradition for global leadership. D’Andrea explained, “We continue to work on expanding our global view of the world by enrolling students from other countries, sending students to our partner school in Spain, doing service work in the Dominican Republic and providing travel abroad.”

Some graduates, while facing serious personal struggles, turned the experience into a benefit for others; students like Alyssa Marino, RBC salutatorian, who overcame her own serious medical issues, and subsequently raised money for children with cancer. 

Others, like members of Catholic Athletes for Christ in SJV, promoted Catholic identity in the community through public prayer and a host of service initiatives.

Teachers, principals and students acknowledged that among the exceptional characteristics of graduates were tenacity, passion, a love for their school community and their Catholic faith. As Kate Gotta, RBC director of communications, shared, “The class of 2019 faced challenges head on. They won athletic championships and awards for performing arts and academics. They competed on the fields and in the classroom but never lost sight of friendships that endured every high and low.”

Importance of Community

Looking back at highlights from the year, it was often those friendships and experiences of being part of a community, in both the good times and difficult moments, that many students recalled. Times like, “being at MetLife Stadium to cheer on the varsity football team as they won the state championship, all of the fun pep rallies we attended, our senior retreat and everyone choosing colleges,” said Regina Acken, RBC student council president.

For DC graduate Christina Merone, “the best memories/highlights from this past year were definitely going to as many school events as possible because we knew these would be our ‘lasts,’ … and being able to spend every day with my best friends and make memories that I will remember forever.”

Fellow graduate Ashley Cucchiara noted that senior year was one of the most challenging years for her, both personally and academically. She stressed, “The challenges I overcame during senior year [served to] shape me as a person and help me realize who I am. Although it was the most difficult, senior year at Donovan was my favorite. My grade bonded with each other and we began doing things together as a class. I made lifelong friendships with people I was not necessarily close to during previous years at Donovan, helping make this year the best one yet.”

Graduates also recalled, with gratitude, the guidance of faculty and administration, and the support and sacrifice of families. “[It] has taught me and my fellow classmates to always keep the faith and look at our brothers and sisters with a positive vibe,” shared DC graduate Christopher Plate.

“One special faculty member has said to her students time after time that we are ‘valued, cherished, loved, always loved!’ As I have felt this way for the past four years, and especially this year, I will continue to share this … with my fellow (students) at Manhattan College,” Plate said.

Always a Family

Among those remembered and appreciated for their love of and influence on graduates and the broader school community was St. Joseph Sister Dorothy Payne, founding president of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, who died Feb. 3.

 “During Sister Dorothy’s time here at Trenton Catholic Academy, her message to the students never changed.  Education was one of the most important things in life. She stressed the importance of education daily, checking in with students who may have been struggling and providing additional challenges to those students she knew were capable of achieving even more,” recalled Rosemarie O’Connor, who served with Sister Dorothy for 14 years, both as a teacher and now in O’Connor’s current role of marketing director.

“Her strong faith in God radiated in everything she said and did, and she always encouraged the students to pray, to be active in their faith community and when able, to give back to those who helped them achieve their goals,” O’Connor recalled.

 “While she may not have been present physically this school year, the Class of 2019 certainly received this message and foundation throughout their academic career.  The foundation Sister Dorothy laid for Trenton Catholic Academy and for the students, both of which she loved dearly, is something they take with them as they graduate and move forward in life. It is also something that we, at TCA, will continue to build upon in the years to come,” O’Connor said.

In his celebration of the Donovan Catholic Baccalaureate Mass, Father Scott Shaffer, pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, reminded graduates to also take with them their school experience of family. “We are a family that prays and celebrates and grieves together,” said Father Shaffer. “Sometimes … most of the time, we get along well. And like, all families, sometimes we have our differences.

“In the Gospel of John, we hear our Lord praying intently that we … all of us … would experience the oneness, the unity that Jesus and his heavenly Father share. My prayer for all of you is that you never forget … the gift of unity in our faith, our classrooms, on stage and on the playing fields. May your hearts remain in Jesus.”