Even amid the solemn atmosphere of the Lenten season, excitement ran high at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church and St. Joseph Catholic School in Decatur as Bishop Rhoades came for Mass and his pastoral visit on March 31. Concelebrating morning Mass were Father David Ruppert, Pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption, and Parochial Vicar Father Jose Panamattathil Chandy, VC, along with Father Jonathan Agbedo from nearby Geneva and recently retired priest and Decatur native, Father Stephen Colchin.
At Mass, Bishop Rhoades thanked Brian Baker, St. Joseph School principal, and others for offering their hospitality that day. Several students engaged with the bishop during his homily, eagerly raising their hands to answer his questions and participating in the Mass.
Bishop Rhoades’ homily focused on giving praise and adoration to God and God alone. He illustrated this point by referencing the first reading for the day, the story of the golden calf, when the Israelites turned from God in the desert and fell into idolatry. “God had done so much for them; He had saved them from slavery and was bringing them to the Promised Land, and what did they do? They rebelled against Him.”
He explained the sin of idolatry and how people fall into it even today by placing other things like money and possessions before God. “The most important thing in our life should be God. God is our creator; He’s our savior. Like He saved the people from slavery, He saves us through His son Jesus. He gives us eternal life. So, we owe Him everything.”
For that reason, the bishop continued, Catholics need to thank God each day for the blessings in their lives. He told the schoolchildren that a wonderful prayer of praise that they could easily say daily is the Glory Be, and he invited them to recite it with him.
He also reminded them that even when one sins, God always stands ready to forgive. “And that’s why we have the wonderful gift of confession, the sacrament of reconciliation.”
Finally, he encouraged them to adore God in the greatest manner possible: by reverently receiving Him in the Eucharist. “With reverence, realize you’re receiving Jesus into our lives, into our souls,” he said. “We thank the Lord for the gift of His Body and Blood. And we can close our eyes and think of how Jesus is in me. Jesus is with me, I just received Him; Holy Communion is an amazing gift. So, it’s wonderful to be with you today to celebrate this great act of worship in which we adore God above all things in holy Mass.”
A unique feeder school system
Though numerous other Catholic schools within the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend offer preschool programs, St. Joseph School is the only Catholic school with a daycare on its campus, serving children as young as six weeks old. This was the first stop on Bishop Rhoades’ visit to the school. Here he met with Laura Sutton, supervisor of the daycare and preschool programs.
He was surprised and impressed by the size of the program, which utilizes a converted convent from the days when religious sisters still served the school and parish community. St. Joseph boasts many rooms for children of different ages, from infants to preschool children preparing to transition to kindergarten in the main school building.
What began as a means of providing affordable daycare for teachers at the school became a way to fill a community need, Baker said. Now the daycare operates year-round in that capacity. Sutton informed Bishop Rhoades that around 70 percent of the children in the program are Catholic and that it has become a great steppingstone into St. Joseph Grade School – almost a feeder school in itself. A recent grant from the State of Indiana will give the program a needed financial boost to purchase new equipment and fill other needs to keep the program running strong.
The preschool students were delighted to meet Bishop Rhoades in their classrooms. When he told one group of joyful children that he is the bishop, one boy asked what a bishop was while other students pointed out his pectoral cross. In one classroom, the bishop was invited to sing the alphabet song with the enthusiastic students.
Exploring the Catholic faith
Though he enjoyed his time with the school’s youngest children, the infants in the daycare, Bishop Rhoades clearly relished speaking with the older students about their religious studies, beginning with Michelle Miller’s second-grade class. Here, the bishop spoke to the second-graders about the importance of their upcoming first Communion.
Similarly, when meeting with members of the student council and the large eighth-grade class, he spoke to them about their approaching confirmation Mass, which will take place in a matter of weeks. Additionally, two eighth-grade girls personally presented Bishop Rhoades with their pre-confirmation letters.
The eighth-grade class was solemn and quiet as two students asked the bishop weighty, thought-provoking questions, one regarding suicide and another about evolution. Bishop Rhoades spoke to the students about the Church’s view on both topics and expounded on the idea of faith and science working together, not against each other.
“I love the complimentary nature of our faith and reason,” he said, explaining that the stories put forward in Genesis are not meant to be scientific, but are religious truths communicated through stories; that Catholics can believe in evolution as long as they are aware that God put souls into the first human beings during the course of it. He also urged the students to never stop learning about their faith, even as many of them transition out of Catholic schools.
A family community
During the bishop’s visit, members of the student council had the opportunity to share with him the things that they liked most about their school. Overall, their answers centered around the faith and education gained at St. Joseph, as two students enjoyed the youth group, two reminisced on a trip they took to Camp Potawatomie in which they learned about the Underground Railroad and one student’s favorite thing was the recent confirmation retreat, presented by the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
During a conversation with the bishop between classes, Baker spoke highly of his students at St. Joseph and how well they represent their Catholic upbringing when they enter Bellmont High School, which most students will attend. St. Joseph students perform well both academically and in the field of sports, he stated.
Baker has reason to be proud of his school and its students, as he is also a product of St. Joseph and a faculty member for 19 years in addition to sending his own children to the school.
As the only Catholic school in Decatur, Baker says the family atmosphere at St. Joseph is unique. “I’m sure every school says it, but it feels like this is just such a family. It’s a small community; everyone seems to know one another and there’s a lot of relatives within the building.”
The three-story school building holds a student population of more than 300 children, with a newer gymnasium built across the street a few years ago. St. Joseph School has been educating the children of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish for generations. The school building is nearly a hundred years old, but the school itself dates back to 1881. The daycare program is in such demand within the community that Baker is looking at ways “to best grow but keep things convenient for the parents,” he said.
The school gives back to the community by raising money for local charities as well as participating in CRS Rice Bowl initiatives. Traditionally, the seventh-grade class performs a living Stations of the Cross on Holy Thursday, setting the mood for the Easter celebration, and this year will be the first to be held in two years.
St. Joseph School will continue to meet the spiritual and academic needs of the Catholic population of Decatur for years to come, giving praise and honor to God for all He has done for His children.
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