By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Catholic Schools Week drew to a memorable close for the St. Peter School community in Point Pleasant Beach Feb. 3 – the Feast of St. Blaise – as Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., blended educational accolades with ancient tradition, blessing the academic endeavors of the students and their throats as well.
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As the celebration began, students from each grade hung banners proclaiming the religious and academic hallmarks of a Catholic education – hope, faith, peace, knowledge, mercy, community, service and diversity – to the altar rail where they remained throughout the Mass, emblematic of Catholic school tradition.
And, where scholastic accolades were concerned, there was no denying the joy shared by Bishop O’Connell and the entire St. Peter community at marking the end of this Catholic Schools Week as one of 329 schools around the nation recognized in 2016 by the U.S. Education Department with the prestigious Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award.
In opening remarks and in his homily, the Bishop shared how “very blessed St. Peter Catholic School” is to be recognized as a ‘Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Wow! That is awesome. What an honor and it belongs to your priests, your principal, your teachers, your staff, your parents, your generous friends of St. Peter, your teams and each and every one of you!”
The Bishop expressed his joy in being invited to St. Peter School by Conventual Franciscan Father Robert Benko, the pastor, who concelebrated along with Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic Education, and Conventual Franciscan Fathers Richard Rossell and Michael Lorentsen, parochial vicar.
His homily put that honor in context with the very particular religious nature of the school.
Of the impending sacramental celebration of the blessing of the throats, the Bishop explained to the children that “today is a special day, the Feast of St. Blaise, a bishop and doctor,” who miraculously saved a little boy who nearly died from a fish bone lodged in his throat.
He urged them to consider St. Blaise as an example of the attributes that make a “saint special” including “doing something good for someone else,” and above all, loving Jesus, receiving him in the Eucharist and sharing Jesus with others.
All the saints depicted in statues and stained glass windows “did all those things,” he said, “before anyone ever thought of creating their image in a statue or a holy picture” like those in St. Peter Church.
And while the saints may have lived at different times in history, “they were no different than you or me,” he assured the students. “They were all kids once, just like us, and they learned their faith, loved their faith and lived their faith. They were not always saints. They became saints … and so can we.”
“That is why we go to Catholic school, really,” he said. “In addition to all the great things we learn – math and science – history and language, computers and social studies – we learn how to become saints especially when we study religion,” he said.
“Our faith teaches us not only in religion class but in all the things we learn in Catholic school. Because of our faith and religion, we learn about the Lord Jesus and how to pray; we learn how to treat people with respect and love and forgiveness as Jesus did,” the Bishop continued. “We learn what is right and we learn what is wrong, like bullying, name calling, fighting and hurting one another. Those things have no place in our school or in our lives. We learn to listen to our parents, and our teachers because God has placed them in our lives. We learn that the Lord Jesus is always with us.”
In conclusion, he urged the students to wear their Blue Ribbons proudly at every opportunity. “As your Bishop, I have come here today the end of Catholic Schools week, ‘Congratulations … and keep up the good work!”
During the visit, the Bishop had an opportunity to meet with some students in their classrooms, while and others lingered in the church along with some of their families reflecting on the day.
Among them were eighth grader Tori Crovo, who carried the “Faith” banner in the opening procession, said it was great that the Bishop got a first-hand look at “how we were coordinated and got to hear everyone singing.”
Avery Hargis, another eighth grader, who carried the “Community” banner, appreciated that the Mass exemplified a real sense of the St. Peter Community. “It brought everyone together,” she said.
And indeed, Marita DeCos, grandmother of sixth grader Alex Coles and his sister Arianna, a fourth grade student, said community spirit was very important to her. DeCos said she wanted to be there to receive the blessing of the throats with her grandchildren and to attend for all the generations of her family who have benefited from St. Peter School.
“I went here and my mother went here. My children went here and now my grandchildren are here. It has given (us) a lot," DeCos said.
JoAnn Tier, superintendent of Catholic Schools, was among the diocesan officials on hand for the celebration. Before she set off with Father Zeis for a tour of the school building, she shared her delight in the performance the students gave of the school song: “Respect, Reverence, Responsibility,” which is also the school’s motto.
“That sums it up and sums it up with so much poise and pride,” she said. “It reflects the values that the students will carry throughout their lives.”
Father Zeis said the celebration ended on “a high note that everyone will remember,” and a story to share as more diocesan schools are encouraged to apply for Blue Ribbon status.