By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Catholic schools are not an assembly line, but at a Metairie restaurant recently, all eyes were focused on the end product – a man or a woman whose life had been changed by attending Catholic schools.
The archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools hosted its first Distinguished Alumni Award ceremony in May, honoring 34 Catholic school graduates nominated for the inaugural honor by their respective schools.
“These are individuals who have done extraordinary things in both their personal and professional lives,” said Dr. RaeNell Houston, superintendent of Catholic schools, who joined Archbishop Gregory Aymond in presenting the award certificates. “Nearly all of the Catholic school alumni whom I have spoken to over the last year have credited their success to their families and to their faith, which includes their experiences in Catholic schools. I’m grateful that your families chose Catholic education for you, and I’m grateful that they had faith in our Catholic schools.”
People serving others
Archbishop Aymond said the award winners have made their Catholic education the foundation of their lives to help others.
“During confirmation once, someone asked me, ‘How many people does it take to change the world?’ and a couple of months later, I came up with the answer,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It takes one – one at a time. We change hearts and we change the world one at a time. We thank you for being part of Catholic education and representing Catholic education by your life and by the way in which you serve others.”
Since this was a first-time event, associate superintendent Jane Baker said she expects it to grow next year as word spreads about the honor among the 80 archdiocesan Catholic schools.
The criteria for the award nominee was simple: Select a graduate of a Catholic elementary or high school who had “positively impacted our church and our community” and, in some instances, the nation.
Variety of careers, ministries
The award winners ranged widely in age, occupation and vocation. They included three priests – Father Gerald Seiler, a 1976 graduate of St. Angela Merici School; Father Kurt Young, a 2001 graduate of St. Edward the Confessor School; and Father Nicholas Pericone, a 1976 graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes School in Slidell, who died recently.
They also included recent graduates, such as Ronnie Osmer, a member of Pope John Paul II High School’s Class of 2018, and men and women who went on to teach in Catholic schools or who now serve as school or parish volunteers.
“You are amazing people, and I feel privileged to be in the room with you today,” Houston told the award recipients. “I am inspired by you, your lives and your example, by your love for God and for our church. I am inspired by your dedication to living the Gospel teaching in your lives. You are great examples to our current students, those who make up the young church in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.”
Catholic schools in her blood
The recipients reveled in sharing their Catholic school memories even as they reluctantly accepted the recognition. Liz McKee, who graduated from St. Peter School in Covington in 1971, has been a first-grade teacher at her alma mater for 40 years.
“I’m not amused – I get that from the Benedictine nuns,” McKee said, smiling about being singled out for the award. “It’s for God’s glory, not for your own. That’s how I was raised.”
McKee’s connection with St. Peter School goes back to her mom, who began teaching there in the early 1960s. When she was a first grader in Sister Scholastica’s classroom, McKee distinctly remembers the nun decorating a bulletin board with a chart consisting of three large pictures: one of heaven, one of purgatory and one of hell.
“If you misbehaved in her classroom, she’d walk over to the board and say, ‘Where do you want to be?’” McKee said, laughing. “We were very good in her class.”
In her own childhood, McKee remembers Benedictine Sister Gregory dancing and jumping rope with the fourth graders at recess while in her full habit.
“You saw faces and hands – that’s all you ever saw,” McKee said. “You never knew there were any other parts to her body. I loved it. The Benedictine nuns were strict, but you knew they loved you, and if you had a problem, they were there for you.
“Catholic school is definitely worth it because you can teach the whole child, not just one side. We try to put that faith in them. Without that, we have nothing.”
McKee says she gets a thrill when “the light bulb goes off” and her first graders start to read. “It just changes their world because then, they can’t get enough to read,” she said. “They’re sitting at their desks and I’m trying to teach and they’re pulling out their library books.”
A foundation for life
Brandon Briscoe, a 1998 graduate of Jesuit High School who is an attorney with Flanagan Partners LLP, said his Jesuit education not only prepared him for his legal career but also gave him a deeper understanding of his faith so that he could pass that on to his three young children.
“I remember in law school a friend telling me that his dad was Catholic and his mother was Jewish, so he grew up with nothing (about the Catholic faith),” Briscoe said. “He didn’t even have the basics of prayer or how to have a relationship with God or even the beginnings of a faith life. So, from the very earliest age, because of Catholic education, I’ve had that as an important part of my life. My friend told me he really lamented that he couldn’t pass it on to his children. So, it’s not just for my benefit, but it’s for my family’s benefit, as well, and I’m excited for the opportunities that my children will have to get that foundation.”
Imbued with spiritual values
Father Seiler, the pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Parish, recalled how he was one of 120 altar boys at St. Angela Merici in the 1970s. He would ride his bike two miles to serve the 6:15 a.m. Mass.
“In addition to the education itself being excellent, the spiritual values exemplified everything,” Father Seiler said. “It was having religion class every day, learning your faith formally in the classroom, weekly Mass, participation in confession, the sacramental life.
“That all reinforced what you got at home from your family. There were a lot of other families doing the same thing, which reinforces everything. You felt like you were part of a community – you weren’t just going to school to get an education but were part of something much bigger, geared toward God and the community.”
Great examples of the faith
Father Young said he still remembers the lesson he learned from longtime St. Edward the Confessor principal Sister of the Living Word Mary de Lourdes Charbonnet and Sister Julia Stump.
“Having the sisters in the school made a huge impact on me,” Father Young said. “Sister Mary de Lourdes was just a very faithful sister who really loved the Lord. I think her vocation, in a way, influenced me to consider the priesthood. That’s the impact she had on me.”
Stumpf’s legacy lives on
In addition to Father Pericone, who was honored posthumously, De La Salle High School nominated Stephen Stumpf, a 1967 graduate, who died earlier this year. Stumpf owned a successful construction firm and was a member of the school’s board of trustees and a major donor who helped transform the school’s library.
“He’s going to be missed, but he lives on through the monies that he and (his wife) Donna provided,” De La Salle president Michael Giambelluca said. “It’s very appropriate that he is our first honoree at this event.”
Followed mom’s footsteps
Megan Ryder Sannino, a 1993 graduate of St. Dominic School, is carrying on a family legacy of parental involvement. Her grandmother, Clare Landry, was president of the St. Dominic Mothers’ Club 46 years ago, and Sannino recently finished her term in the same role. She still remembers her favorite English teacher – Nellie Schott – who is a St. Dominic parishioner today.
“I just love putting all of my Catholic education into the service of my school and my church,” Sannino said. “St. Dominic really instilled in me a sense of family and community, and that’s what I really love about it. Everybody here is family. That’s what I love about giving back to my school.”
Supported in her illness
The honor was doubly special to Tamiko Massey-Haynes, a 1989 graduate of St. Mary’s Academy who now works as an academic advisor at the school. She was recently diagnosed with cancer and said she had been supported in prayer by the Sisters of the Holy Family, her fellow teachers and the students.
“My faith means a lot to me, especially since I was diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “The sisters have just welcomed me even more. I feel their prayers.”
Massey-Haynes, whose daughter attends St. Mary’s, said she draws on her own experience in high school whenever she has to give guidance to a current student.
“I try to tell the students what I wanted to hear at that age, what I needed to hear at that age,” she said.
Massey-Haynes said the loving discipline of the Sisters of the Holy Family molded her future.
“I didn’t look at their strictness as meanness,” she said. “I looked at their strictness as love, because my mom was just like that. Whatever I couldn’t do at home, I couldn’t do at school.
“Once my mom came to school and I was thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ And she said, ‘Don’t you worry why I’m here.’ I didn’t worry, because I didn’t do anything bad at school because I couldn’t do that. I had better not. But I knew I didn’t have to worry about it.”
Passing it on
Briscoe said he and his wife Sarah Jane know that their three small children will be attending Catholic school. It is more than worth the investment, he said.
“It’s priceless, the value of a Catholic education,” Briscoe said. “It certainly has been in my life.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.