Catholic schools may be ‘more necessary than ever’: Bishop

Photo Caption: Catholic school principals from around the Diocese of Peoria met in Peoria Aug. 14 to kick off the new academic year with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC.

By: By Jennifer Willems

As they prepared to start another academic year, administrators from schools around the Diocese of Peoria took some time out to gather for prayer, camaraderie and words of encouragement from Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and the diocesan staff.

The opening Mass and meeting also offered them an opportunity to welcome Dr. Sharon Weiss as the new superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria and to honor Father Ric Schneider, OFM, as this year’s “Distinguished Pastor” and Kay O’Brien as the “Distinguished Principal.”

“Our schools are perhaps more necessary today than they ever have been in the history of the American Catholic Church,” Bishop Jenky said in his homily at the Mass, which was celebrated in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel at the Spalding Renewal Center. “They need to be places, obviously, where our young folks are prepared for life, learn, study, have sports, experience community, learn to be of service, but also where they can enact their faith.”

He said the genius of Catholic Christianity is that it combines tradition with Scripture in a way that intertwines the truths of the faith with ordinary living. The use of medals, holy cards and other sacramentals allow us to touch, taste, feel and smell what we believe so that our faith is alive, Bishop Jenky explained.

“The greatest example of our sacramental tradition is the Eucharist, where the Word of God, that Word that truly became flesh, lives among us in Spirit and is truly present in the sacrament so that all we do — our schools, our diocese, our lives — revolve around that altar of God, that table of the Lord,” he said. “Even on this earth Christ is present to us. We touch him, we taste him, we welcome him into our hearts and lives and pass on that greatest of all Catholic treasures to future generations.”

After Communion, Bishop Jenky asked the principals to stand and attest to their willingness to rediscover and renew their relationship with Jesus and “allow our hearts to be renewed through his transforming grace.” As a pledge of their commitment to Christ and his church, they each received a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church from the bishop.

Noting the upcoming Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict to honor the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he said, “This school year provides a great opportunity to take time to experience more deeply the gift of the Catechism as the universal standard of our faith.”

At the lunch that followed in the Spalding Pastoral Center, Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, added her thanks for what the principals do and officially welcomed Weiss, her former German teacher, as superintendent.

“I think it’s important to note that most of the people here in this room who are principals were once teachers as well. Whether you know it or not, there are a lot of people out there whose lives you touched, students who remember you fondly as someone they perceived as a good role model, as a person they want to model themselves after as they grow in life,” she said.

“I want to let you know that Sharon Weiss was always one of those teachers for me when I was in high school,” Gibson said. “I encourage you to get to know her. Work with her. She will be a great asset not only to our schools office, but to all of you as well.”

In her turn, Weiss recognized Barbara Shrode, Colin Letendre and Mike Birdoes for their years of service to Catholic education. Shrode has been the principal at St. Paul’s School in Macomb for 15 years, while Colin Letendre has led Alleman High School in Rock Island for 20 years.

Birdoes also has been a principal in the Diocese of Peoria for 20 years — 11 years at Blessed Sacrament School in Morton, where he serves now, and nine years at St. Vincent de Paul School in Peoria. Under his leadership, St. Vincent de Paul School was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Father Ric Schneider, OFM, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Bloomington since 1993, was not only recognized as the 2011-12 Distinguished Pastor for the Diocese of Peoria, but was one of 10 Catholic school pastors to be honored by the National Catholic Educational Association at its annual meeting in April. (See The Catholic Post, April 29, 2012)

Kay O’Brien, who was named the 2011-12 Distinguished Principal for the Diocese of Peoria, retired from Holy Trinity School in Bloomington in May and was not able to be present at the luncheon. Dr. Weiss said the longtime principal had sent word that she is enjoying her retirement and being a grandmother. (See related story here.)

This year’s meeting included an opportunity for the principals to meet and hear from members of the diocesan staff and receive resource materials for the coming year.

In addition, the high school principals and chaplains met briefly with Father Patrick Henehan, director of the diocesan Council for High School Chaplains; Craig Dyke, director of the diocesan Offices of Evangelization and Family Life; and Weiss.

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