The football team began filing into the building with their pressed white dress shirts and ties cinched up around their stout necks. The cheerleaders wore bows of our school colors in their hair. The band and flag team were dressed in their red shirts and everyone was ready for our first big game weekend. I was also excited because I was going to have 15 minutes after Mass to speak with the students. That’s something I love about this calling: Speaking to and forming relationships with our students and families.
Because we follow a shortened class schedule on Mass days, the time between the start of school and the time for Mass to begin flew by. I had to make a run to EHOVE Career Center in that time to meet with our vocational students. When I returned to St. Paul, most of the students and teachers were already in the church, so I entered through the rear door and stood at the back in the narthex. As I looked toward the altar, I saw the students and faculty sitting next to each other as the musicians and choir provided soft prelude music.
The Rev. Andrew Wellmann, followed by the student servers, walked to the back of the church and shook our hands, welcoming us to Mass. They then processed to the altar and Mass began.
As I watched my staff and students worship together, it suddenly hit me that after 33 years in education, I was finally at a school that had their priorities in order. We sang, we prayed and we listened to the Word of God being read from the Holy Scriptures. We listened to the homily that discussed the importance of beginning every task, including a new school year, with the blessing and support of God.
About midway through the service, I felt a wave of emotion and peace come over me as I watched the St. Paul community worship God together. Tears began to stream down my cheeks as I realized this was the most beautiful experience I have ever enjoyed in my educational career. I wiped them away quickly and thought to myself, “You have to pull yourself together, you’ll be speaking to the students in a few minutes.”
Then, the student Eucharistic ministers came to the narthex of the church. Not being Catholic, I knew I couldn’t take the sacrament, but as I folded my arms over my chest, one of my students, a young lady, put her hand on my forehead and blessed me. The tears came even stronger now and trying to choke them back was not working.
Thankfully, Martin Linder spoke briefly to the students after Mass and the students and teachers returned to their classes. As I spoke to the adults in the office after the Mass, I was still filled with emotion and tears were still flowing. It was then that I thought about the true school spirit of St. Paul.
Correctly written, I should say “school spirit” because the Holy Spirit fills that role here at our school. Sure, the Flyer spirit, the fans and alumni who cherish the red and black, that’s alive and well! We love our extra-curricular activities here, with 96 percent of our students participating in them. But the Spirit who truly binds us together as the Flyer family is the Holy Spirit.
I think those Flyer family members who have grown up in Catholic schools and those who have worked here for years may be tempted to view our school Mass in the same way they do an English or biology class: something you sit through and from which you try to learn a few things. The power I felt last Friday, however, reflects the fact that the school Mass is so much more. It’s a place to relieve your burdens, pray for intercession and be filled with the Holy Spirit for strength to continue the Christian walk.
I am very thankful to the Flyer family for welcoming me, a joyfully practicing Lutheran, into their family. I look forward to being the lead servant here at St. Paul High and Norwalk Catholic junior high school, where we live in joy, practice kindness and exhibit self-control in all we say and do.
Local columnist Darren Conley is the director of education at Norwalk Catholic School and St. Paul High School.