Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer
January 9, 2018 // Bishop

Visit by Bishop Rhoades much anticipated at St. Joseph School

Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer

Click here for more photos from the visit.

Excitement was running high on Friday, Jan. 5, at St. Joseph School in Decatur, over a long-anticipated visit of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades. The children were looking forward to his visit even before Christmas break, said pastor Father Bob Lengerich. “Catholic Schools Week has started early at St. Joe’s” with the bishop’s appearance, he added.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrates Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish for students and staff of St. Joseph School, Decatur, Jan. 5. Concelebrating are, at left, associate pastor Father Jose Panamattathil, and at right, pastor Father Bob Lengerich. All Photos by John Martin

The day began with Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Church, celebrated by Bishop Rhoades and concelebrated by Father Lengerich and parochial vicar Father Jose Panamattathil Chandy. Bishop Rhoades noted the lighted trees and the Nativity scene near the altar where, he reminded his listeners, the Magi would appear on the feast of the Epiphany.

St. Joseph School second graders Brady Bohnke, left, and Dawson Andrews, lead their school community in prayer.

The bishop said he was happy to visit on the feast day of the bishop who established the first diocesan Catholic school system in the U.S., St. John Neumann. “I’m very happy to be here … in one of the great Catholic schools of our diocese,” he told them.

During his homily, Bishop Rhoades spoke of two great commandments, to love God and to love one another. In order to love God and be His disciple, like Philip and Nathaniel, it is necessary to love one another, he told the children. He spoke more of St. John Neumann, from Bohemia, who became a missionary priest in America and ministered to the burgeoning numbers of immigrants in this country. The young priest was appointed bishop of Philadelphia, where he built 89 churches and founded 100 Catholic schools during the eight years before his death, at the age of 49. He was an excellent example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, said the bishop. That saint served God and the Church and we should ask him to pray for us, he concluded.

In closing, Bishop Rhoades thanked teachers, staff members and the parents and grandparents in attendance for their commitment to Catholic education.

Officers of the St. Joseph Student Council present Bishop Rhoades with a memento of his visit.

Immediately following the Mass, Bishop Rhoades received a surprise gift from student council members — a book with messages and drawings from every student at St. Joseph School — as a memento of his visit. He then toured classrooms, where he quizzed students on their religion classes and took questions from them as well. Second-graders were learning the commandments and were eager to share their knowledge. There is one God, His name should be revered; and everyone should attend Mass on Sunday, they said.

Fourth-graders were studying human dignity and had learned that everyone is created in the image of God. Bishop Rhoades took the opportunity to talk about refugees, comparing them to the Holy Family fleeing from King Herod. The Eight Beatitudes were under discussion in grade five, so the bishop reminded students that the saints were men and women of the Beatitudes. In closing, the class recited the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Bishop Rhoades and Father Lengerich, right, speak with kindergartners following the Mass. The bishop stopped in each of the school’s classrooms to spend time with students, answer questions and discuss what they were studying. Teacher Rachel Fravel is at left.

First-graders were curious about the bishop’s miter and crosier, which they had seen at Mass. He explained that the miter is designed to resemble tongues of fire that portray the Holy Spirit, and the crosier is like a shepherd’s staff which represents his leadership of the church. He was pleased that the students were able to recite the Spiritual Communion prayer.

Kindergarteners were focused on the birth of Jesus, and concerned that there was no room at the inn for the Holy Family. However, they were glad to know that animals surrounded Baby Jesus at the stable. They were able to recite the Angel of God prayer for Bishop Rhoades.

Seventh and eighth graders learned about the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, which comprises 14 counties and 160,000 Catholics, and a bit about the governance of the Church. The bishop’s role is to sanctify and shepherd its members, he explained.

Third-graders impressed Bishop Rhoades with their knowledge of the seven sacraments and were especially interested in his place in the order of apostolic succession. They prayed the Apostle’s Creed with him.

Eighth-graders had personal questions for the bishop regarding his discernment of a priestly vocation. He said that he had spent much time in prayer and felt a sense of peace on making his decision. They were also curious about his management of the diocese, especially the selection and transfer of parish priests. He shared that he considers his priests’ capabilities and talents as well as age and health in making those decisions.

St. Joseph School principal Jeff Kieffer, left, and Father Lengerich said the bishop’s Jan. 5 visit was excitedly anticipated by the entire student body and staff.

Bishop Rhoades reminded the students of the importance of prayer as they prepare to receive the sacrament of confirmation and complimented them on the “angel” program that pairs them with kindergarteners during all-school Masses. He recited “Come Holy Spirit” with them and said upon leaving, “See you in April.”

The history of St. Joseph Catholic School dates back to 1858, when a one-room school was contained within St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The first free-standing school was established in 1881 under the direction of Rev. Theodore Wilkin and staffed by the Sisters of St. Agnes. Then in 1923 ground was broken to construct a larger school, which was completed in 1925. Decatur Catholic High School was opened in 1919, and its peak enrollment was 990 students until it closed in 1967 at the half-century mark. St. Joseph School expanded to include kindergarten in 1982, preschool in 1991 and daycare in 1994. Current enrollment stands at 289 in kindergarten through eighth grade, 80 in pre-K and 80 children in daycare.

St. Joseph principal Jeff Kieffer is especially proud of the history and long-standing tradition that surrounds the school. “We have many students attending now who can list at least four generations of their families that have attended St. Joe,” he pointed out. “The stories of how it used to be are told, old pictures fill the trophy cases in our hallways and the traditions created and handed down are very much a part of daily life and guide many of the decisions we make today.

“We recently sought to create a new school logo that would focus more on Catholic identity and our mission of ‘Nurturing the Mind, Body and Spirit,’” he continued. However, “in doing so we had to be mindful of including the traditions of our community, parish and school. The city of Decatur is named for Stephen Decatur, who was a United States naval officer and commodore during the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812.”

Kieffer went on to explain that the school’s teams are the Commodores, which are symbolized by a ship’s wheel. But when the logo was redesigned, he said, one of the eight spokes on the traditional wheel was removed to symbolize the seven sacraments. At the center of the wheel a cross on a white background makes it resemble the Eucharist, “which is the source, summit and center of all we do. Finally, with the Eucharist in mind, we tapered the ends of each spoke so that it could also be viewed as a monstrance. The new logo ties together our past traditions and increases the mindfulness to our mission,” he noted.

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