AVILLA — Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades traveled to the small community of Avilla early Monday morning, Aug. 26, to celebrate Mass with the students of St. Mary of the Assumption School and to help them commemorate 150 years of Catholic education.
“It is a joy for me to come to St. Mary’s School today,” he declared at the opening of Mass. He noted that it was his first school visit in the new academic year and expressed gratitude to the teachers and parents in attendance.
In his homily, Bishop Rhoades talked to the students about their school mascot, the eagle, a strong bird that soars toward the heavens. He challenged them to think about soaring like an eagle, about “striving for excellence in all you do.”
He spoke of their education at St. Mary’s as three-faceted, as education of the body, mind and soul.
Physical education is important, he said, as well as nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle.
Education of the mind comes from the school subjects, which are studied daily and require use of one’s intellectual powers. He advised students to use their minds for intellectual as well as spiritual growth.
Education of the soul is most important, he said, for it leads one to salvation, to eternal life through Jesus Christ. School helps us grow in Christ, he pointed out, through study of religion and the Bible. “I pray this school year that you soar like eagles in body, mind and soul,” he concluded.
Following Mass, Bishop Rhoades continued on to the school, where a billboard in the entrance hall welcomed him and displayed the school’s motto, “Children Growing in Wisdom and Grace.” He met briefly with the school board and learned of their goals for the year, which include increased enrollment and visibility in the community. “I’m very committed to Catholic schools” as an important part of the mission of the Church, he assured them.
The bishop then visited each classroom, much to the delight of the students. Kindergarteners showed him hand puppets they had made in his likeness and sang, “I am a Friend of God” for his entertainment. First graders assured him that they knew many prayers, including the Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be and Angel of God. He was pleased and reminded them they could also talk to God “like a friend.” Second grade is especially important, bishop told those students, because they will receive two sacraments this year — Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist.
Third graders were learning the Beatitudes and the colors of the Church year. Purple is for preparation, green is the color of ordinary time, white is used for celebration and red signifies fire and blood, they pointed out. Fourth graders were discussing faith and the ways in which God reveals Himself to us. Fifth graders were learning about the sacraments, sixth graders about the Old Testament and seventh graders about the New Testament. Eighth graders were beginning their preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation.
Bishop Rhoades clearly enjoyed interacting with the students and appeared to be well pleased with their education in the faith after his tour. “I love to visit Catholic schools,” he said.
St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School is a long-standing institution, having educated children from Avilla and surrounding communities for 150 years. The school was established in 1863, fully 10 years after the church was begun by early settlers in Noble County, in response to its parishioners’ desire for a uniquely Catholic education for their children.
One hundred sixty-nine students are currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The only Catholic elementary school in Noble County, St. Mary’s draws from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Albion, Immaculate Conception parishes in Kendallville and Ege, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Angola, St. John Bosco in Churubusco and St. Gaspar in Rome City.
Principal Jeffrey Kieffer believes area parents understand the importance of the school’s Catholic identity and want that education in the faith for their children.
Students’ spiritual development is first and foremost, he noted. Each school day begins with a gathering in the gymnasium for announcements and sharing of good news, then the Apostles’ Creed is recited. A prayer also begins each class. Beginning in first grade, students help plan twice-weekly school Masses by writing the prayers of the faithful, reciting the daily reading and psalm, singing the Alleluia and serving as acolytes.
St. Mary’s pastor, Father Daniel Chukwuleta, presents excellent homilies at those Masses, said Kieffer. “He is truly a gift. … His love of Christ and his excitement at sharing the faith with the children is remarkable.”
Education in other areas claims a high priority as well. Principal Kieffer noted that St. Mary’s received an A rating following ISTEP testing last year, eighth graders compete well in the math bowl quiz sponsored by Huntington University each year, and a long-standing Dekko Fine Arts Grant provides funding for various art education experiences at all grade levels.
Extracurricular offerings are also many and varied. In collaboration with St. Joseph School in Garrett, Oak Farm Montessori and other area schools, students are able to participate in football, basketball, volleyball, golf, soccer and track and field. After-school music offerings include choir and band. And a cheer team is offered for younger students.
This year, an after-school care program, which extends to 5 p.m., was added and serves 15 St. Mary’s students whose parents work and need a little extra time before they can reach the school.
Those parents and others support St. Mary’s through participation in the Home and School Association and its many projects. A cookie dough fundraiser, one of the biggest of the year, has just kicked off. Trivia nights and a craft bazaar have been successful in years past. “This year, they are hoping to introduce several new ideas to increase excitement and participation,” said Kieffer.
Principal Kieffer is justifiably proud of the small school. “St. Mary School in Avilla … values its identity as a Catholic school above all else,” he said. “This is the 150th year of educating students in the faith. … The teachers, parents, students and parish working together as a family help to keep our Catholic identity and academics strong.” There is little doubt that the mission and strong Catholic identity of St. Mary’s will keep it vibrant and thriving for years to come.
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