By Bonny Van
The Catholic Commentator
With prayers, praise and lots of recognition, Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 27 – Feb. 2, was celebrated in Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Events included special Masses during the weekend with students wearing their Catholic school uniforms; donation drives to support Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge; municipal, civil parish and state proclamations recognizing Catholic Schools Week in Louisiana; and, recognition of school graduates who have been called to the priesthood or other religious vocations.
“This year’s NCEA (National Catholic Educational Association) theme for Catholic Schools Week is ‘Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.,’ ” said Catholic schools superintendent Dr. Melanie Verges. “In the Diocese of Baton Rouge, it closely connects to our vision of Catholic education.”
Verges noted that “examples of the great ministry of Catholic education” were evident during the annual Distinguished Graduate Banquet at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge on Monday, Jan. 28. At that event, the Catholic Schools Office and Bishop Michal G. Duca handed out awards to 31 Catholic schools distinguished graduates from all schools in the diocese.
“These individuals have used all that they learned while in Catholic schools, to live lives that exemplify moral values, academic accomplishment and community service that Catholic schools profess,” said Verges.
Among those distinguished graduates celebrated at the banquet was community activist and philanthropist Suzanne Wilbert Turner, a 1943 graduate of St. John Interparochial School in Plaquemine, who gave the bishop a lingering, inspiring and warm embrace as she accepted her award.
Bishop Michael G. Duca along with Catholic Schools superintendent Dr. Melanie Verges, pictured far right, presented awards for Distinguished Educator to Marilyn Smith; Distinguished Clergy Member to Father Cleo Milano; and, Distinguished Administrator to Jack Nelson.
“I was surprised!” said Turner of the honor. “I’m a long way from Catholic school (years). I really appreciate what a Catholic education is.”
“It seems like every place I go I learn something new,” said Bishop Duca, who was installed as bishop of the Baton Rouge diocese in August. “And now, I learn not only what a vibrant Catholic school system we have but how vibrant and active our alumni are. And that, really in the end, is the test of our Catholic education – how it helps our young people be successful in the world.”
A special Mass for Catholic Schools Week was celebrated on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge. The church was filled with students dressed in school uniforms. Mass began with a procession of students and principals carrying gifts of donations for Catholic Charities. The gifts depicted the larger amounts of similar items donated from each of the schools.
In her introduction, Verges noted that Catholic Schools Office does not have to wait for students to graduate to celebrate their accomplishments “because we have excellent students in our schools right now.” She said each year, “we celebrate the good news of Catholic education” and what another incredible year this has been.
“Students, you are privileged to be in a Catholic school, where each day you learn how to live your faith in the world,” remarked Verges. “You’re able to participate in service projects, helping others in need, which teaches them and teaches you about the great gift of charity. You have the ability to take leadership roles in the classrooms, clubs and on the playing field or court. All of these – learning, serving and leading – will help to make you successful now and in the future. You will be able to take Gospel values that you were taught today and apply them throughout your life, making this world a better place and helping you to become closer to God.”
Students representing all of the schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge presented gifts of donations to Catholic Charities before Mass began.
Following Mass, Michael Miller, assistant superintendent of CSO, read a proclamation from Gov. John Bel Edwards proclaiming Catholic Schools Week in the state of Louisiana. Other proclamations came from the cities of New Roads, Baton Rouge, Gonzales, Plaquemine, Pontchatoula and Donaldsonville; along with proclaimations from Ascension Civil Parish and Iberville Civil Parish.
Also, Bishop Duca, along with Verges, presented the CSO’s award for Distinguished Clergy Member to Father Cleo Milano, pastor of OLOM; the award for Distinguished Administrator to Jack Nelson, principal of St. George School in Baton Rouge; and, the award for Distinguished Educator to Marilyn Smith, a teacher at St. Joseph School in Pontchatoula. Father Milano and Nelson also received national recognition for their dedication to Catholic education with the NCEA 2019 Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award. They will receive on April 23 in Chicago.
“God wants us to be the instruments of change in the world,” the bishop told the students during his homily. “This Catholic education is going to give you some of the tools you’ll need to make that change in the world. And so, your parents sacrificed for Catholic education so that you might be able to make a difference … and remember Jesus’ words, ‘I came not to be served but to serve.’ ”