Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer
September 7, 2021 // Bishop

St. Thomas students encouraged to be ‘children of the light’

Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer

Catholic students in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend have returned to their classrooms for the 2021-22 school year, and through Mass at the University of Saint Francis and a pastoral visit to St. Thomas the Apostle School in Elkhart, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades has been with them.

He began his visit to St. Thomas Aug. 31 with a Mass, sharing with the elementary and middle school students that he was “very happy to be at St. Thomas to celebrate Mass with all of you. This is my first (pastoral) visit (of the school year), and I wanted to come to St. Thomas.”

During the homily, Bishop Rhoades spoke about the first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He taught the students a Greek word — “Parousia” — which means, “the second coming of Christ,” and told them that’s what the reading was about. He said Catholics believe He’ll come again to judge the living and the dead.

“St. Paul tells the people in the first reading that Jesus will ‘come like a thief in the night’ — he used that image to say we don’t know when He’ll come, so we should always be ready for Jesus’ second coming every day, living with faith and hope and love so we’re ready.”

Catholic education is a gift, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades tells students at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Elkhart during a pastoral visit to the school Aug. 31. “You can … pray and learn about God’s love, learn about Jesus’ teaching, His life and miracles, and you’ll have that knowledge and faith the rest of your life.”

He said St. Paul called Christians ‘children of the light,’ and asked the students if they knew what that meant and when, exactly, they became children of the light. One student responded, ‘in baptism’. 

The bishop explained that at their baptism, the priest took a candle, lit it from the Easter candle and gave it to the parents and godparents, telling them to keep the light burning brightly. 

“Sometimes we sin, and that’s darkness. But we shouldn’t remain in darkness. Go to confession so we can continue to live as children of the light,” he said. 

“At the end of the reading, St. Paul tells the people to ‘encourage one another and build each other up, help each other out, not tear each other down. Saying mean things, criticizing others, not being kind—that’s tearing down,” he added. “As disciples of Jesus, we’re called to encourage one another.”

In the Gospel reading, the students heard that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. 

“People were amazed at His teaching because He had so much wisdom and was teaching with authority,” the bishop said. “At the end of the Gospel, they were amazed again because not only did He teach with such authority, but he even had the authority to cast out demons.”

“That was part of Jesus’ mission — one reason He came to earth — to save us from evil, conquer the devil. He came to free us, liberate us from the power of evil. He did that by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. We celebrate that at every Mass: the holy Eucharist is the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus’ body, broken for us, becomes present under the form of bread. His blood, which was poured out for us becomes present under the form of wine,” he continued.

“So, every time we come to Mass, we remember Jesus’ great love for us. We get to participate in that every time we come to Mass, we get to receive the amazing gift of the Holy Eucharist. Our faith is amazing!”

“At St. Thomas School, you learn our beautiful faith. You’re reminded every time you come to Mass of Jesus’ great love. But not just at Mass: Every time you look at the crucifix in your classroom, you remember how much Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. 

“What a gift it is to have Catholic education. You can come to school at St. Thomas and pray and learn about God’s love, learn about Jesus’ teaching, His life and miracles, and you’ll have that knowledge and faith the rest of your life,” he said.

Photos by John Martin
During his homily at a Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle School, Elkhart, Aug. 31, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades spoke about the Gospel reading of Jesus teaching in the synagogue. People were amazed by His wisdom and authority, the bishop said.

Bishop Rhoades said he thanked the teachers and staff, pastor Father Jason Freiburger and St. Thomas parents for educating the students. He told the students, “I hope you’ll always live as children of the light.” He also thanked the parishioners for their support of the school. “We wouldn’t have a school if not for the support of parishioners. They believe, as I do, that Catholic education is so important.”

Bishop Rhoades then visited each classroom and spoke to the students about what they were learning. In the fourth-grade classes, he asked students which saint they were choosing to dress up as for the upcoming All-School Mass and heard several St. Michaels, St. Francis, St. John Paul, St. Rose of Lima and the Virgin Mary, among others.

The fifth-grade class was learning about state capitals. Bishop Rhoades pointed out how many of the state capitals had Catholic names because they were founded by Catholic missionaries. 

Third graders said they were learning how people are all different, but that if they work together, they can build community. The bishop pointed out how the Church exists everywhere, all over the world.

He spoke to eighth graders about the sacrament of confirmation and gave them suggestions of how to choose a saint’s name. The students also showed him a short video of the class shaving their heads in solidarity with classmate Chris Gropp, who had Stage 4 cancer but is now doing well. Later, the bishop had lunch with the teachers and visited preschool classrooms. 

Provided by Father Jason Freiburger
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades embodied Christ by saying ‘Let the children come to me’ when he visited the preschool class at St. Thomas the Apostle in Elkhart Aug. 31.

Growing enrollment

St. Thomas the Apostle School offers pre-school through eighth grade and has an enrollment of 248 students. Principal Chris Adamo said enrollment was up about 10% this year — about 20 new students.

“That was the goal from the time I got hired five years ago. We wanted slow, intentional growth of about 1-2% a year so we could keep our identity of high academic achievement in a faith-based school,” he said. “Christ-centered education comes first.” 

Adamo said he’s in the classrooms all the time, as is Father Freiburger. 

“We’ve seen that outreach be successful in families and in people joining the Church,” he said.

St. Thomas the Apostle pastor Father Jason Freiburger watches as a student speaks with the bishop.

Adamo estimated that about 10% of the student body is nonCatholic. He believes those families are attracted to the school because “we have a wonderful building and high achievement in academics, and that’s very attractive to families. So, it’s a great opportunity and venue to have nonCatholics join. That’s our goal, to profess our faith, and we have a wonderful venue for that.”

Adamo said Father Freiburger is always finding new ways to engage with families and gave an example of the pastor offering a blessing for pets in the school pick-up line.

“The kids loved it, and even some nonCatholic students brought pets. Everyone was engaged and wanted to know when we’ll do it again,” he recalled.

Bishop Rhoades and Thomas the Apostle principal Chris Adamo visit classrooms at the school. The bishop asked questions from students about what they are learning and fielded questions about his role as bishop.

Adamo emphasized the school’s rigorous curriculum. “Our kids are in the top 10% of the state,” he said adding that at Marian High School in Mishawaka, two of the top three students were St. Thomas alumni and that most of their students test out of Spanish 1 at Marian.

“It doesn’t matter what high school they go to; our kids succeed. We had three valedictorians at three different high schools,” he reported. During the last six years, 100% of third graders also passed the I Read test. 

Adamo said they even succeeded during COVID. The school was set up right away for virtual learning when everything shut down.

“Our kids didn’t miss a beat and we had 180 days of school every year,” he said. 

Athletics and special programs

Students at St. Thomas have several opportunities to participate in athletics, including soccer for boys and girls, football, basketball for boys and girls, volleyball, cheerleading, track, cross country, tennis, baseball and softball. 

There’s a yearbook club, and the students take all the photos and decide the general layout. Adamo said the middle schoolers “take point,” but the younger students also help and give input.

“They’re a fantastic group of kids,” Mr. Adamo said.

The computer teacher started a podcast club with students deciding what will be recorded, according to Adamo. “They develop neat topics: One student came up with the topic of the effect the shutdown had on a student’s mentality as an athlete, for example.” 

Students also created a garden in the school courtyard. The southern half is a community garden. They  plant seeds in containers in early spring, then they plant them in the garden.

“Father offers a blessing, they tend it through the summer and we harvest it in the fall,” he said. The northern half is a reading and reflection area and has a little library stocked with books so at lunch time students can go out and read. There’s a big chair in case teachers want to go out or take their class out to read. 

This year, they’re looking forward to bringing back a live Nativity in December. Adamo said that during the event, the school is open and Christmas music is playing. There is a live petting zoo in the parking lot and a live Nativity in the church. “It’s a really neat event,” he said.

St. Thomas offers high academic achievement in faith-based environment in grades preschool though eight. Enrollment is up this year.

‘Build Us a Table’

The school’s theme this year is “Build Us a Table,” about volunteerism and acts of service. All the students are included in developing the theme, and they work together on it.

“In the past, we partnered with an organization called Sleep in Heavenly Peace. They build beds for kids that don’t have them,” he explained.

Students in the older grades stain and cut wood and put the beds together. The younger ones wanted to help, so they thought about what they could contribute and decided they could collect books and stuffed animals for each bed. Students in fourth-sixth grade decided the recipients might like special blankets, so they got fleece material and made blankets with a fun, printed design on one side. “So, with every one of the 75 beds we donated, there was also a blanket, pillow, book and stuffed animal for the child,” he said.

They’ve also held blood drives and, in the past, partnered with ETHOS, a science consortium that promotes hands on science.

Adamo said he, the pastor and the teachers “listen to the kids and what they want. I eat lunch with the middle schoolers, and if they have a suggestion, I take it to Father Jason and we usually go with it.” They encourage the students to figure out how to make the program that they suggested happen.

“From preschool to eighth grade, our students succeed. We instill a capacity in our students for Christ, compassion and character by educating the mind, body and spirit.”

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