#PNDtogether: A grieving community unites in prayer, love, remembrance

In the week between Randy Simmons' Feb. 19 death and Feb. 26 funeral, students at Peoria Notre Dame High School found creative ways to support and encourage one another, and pay tribute to their beloved principal. (Provided photo)

The morning after his death, Randy Simmons was remembered during an all-school Mass at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he had served as principal for six years. Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, was the main celebrant for the liturgy and in his homily he called Simmons “a gifted educator” and man of strong faith.

“He was always cheering you guys on. He wanted you to be your best academically, in sports and in your faith. And that is a gift you will carry with you the rest of your lives,” the bishop said.

Bishop Jenky spoke to the students about a natural phenomenon called riptide, a strong current that can pull unsuspecting swimmers out to sea. He said that while Simmons was a strong man in every way, “in personal pain and great suffering, he could not handle that riptide.”

“I say to you, with the authority of being a bishop . . . that there was no sinful rebellion in Randy when he died. He was being pulled,” Bishop Jenky assured his listeners, urging them to talk to someone if they were hurting

“If you need help it’s a good thing to cry out for help,” he told the grieving school community. “Many of the priests in the Peoria area will be available here in the gym after Mass and we have counselors available in the library and the cafeteria. If you need to talk to somebody today or in the future, please do it.” (For the full text of the homily, click here.)

RELATED STORY: Emotional week as Peoria Notre Dame mourns death of principal Randy Simmons

MOVING ON TOGETHER

Sister Sara Kowal, SCTJM, who on Feb. 1 was named to succeed Simmons as principal after he retired in June, echoed Bishop Jenky’s words.

“Grief is a difficult thing. We don’t all experience it the same way and in the same form and in the same moments,” she said. “But we are all going to experience it, because it is real and it’s part of the sorrow.”

It’s OK not to be OK, Sister Sara emphasized.

Randy Simmons is pictured on Feb. 1 with Father Kyle Lucas, chaplain of Peoria Notre Dame, and Sister Sara Kowal, SCTJM. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“The important thing is you don’t do that alone,” she said. “The worst thing we can do with grief is bottle it all in and try to deal with it by ourselves. We’re not meant to do that. We’re a family. . . . We will walk through this together.”

To give them something to hang onto for the journey, Charlie Lavin, Simmons’ brother-in-law, told the students that Simmons chose to return year after year for two reasons.

“Number one, I love this place,” Simmons told Lavin. “But more importantly, I love my students.”

“Take that with you today and through the rest of your lives. When you think of Randy, you think of that,” Lavin said.

In the days that followed the Feb. 20 Mass, the students posted notes of love and encouragement to each other throughout the school, adopting the hashtag #PNDtogether.

“That succinctly describes how we are all doing,” according to Dr. Susie Cicciarelli, assistant principal, adding that the same was true for Simmons’ family, his friends, and his colleagues and students from every school.

“We are all asking each other how the other is doing and offering support,” she said. “We are together in support of one another.”

Father Kyle Lucas, chaplain, said a Catholic school offers a unique perspective to students that is especially helpful now, which is taking all that has happened and looking at it through the lens of the Gospel.

“How will this move me as a person to continue to want to cling to the risen life of Christ? To be my most and best Christ-like self? That for me is the goal,” he said. “And that’s what Randy wanted to be himself every day — that whoever he would encounter, whoever he was teaching would see Christ communicated.”

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