By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 28, 2005
The community of Our Lady of Mercy High School remembered the exemplary Christian witness and outreach of Pope John Paul II to God’s children of many nations and religions around the world as it celebrated its annual multicultural Mass with special guests Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta.
Students were also recognized for their community service and other accomplishments. Selected students from the student body of 240 wore ethnic attire representing people from around the world, including one girl who wore a red Asian sari, a boy in a “mud-cloth” representing Madagascar, the land of his ancestors, and others representing countries ranging from Japan to Poland to Peru. Catholic priests were also in attendance from south side and downtown parishes.
The mood was a mixture of celebration and sadness, as those gathered April 5 reflected on the legacy of Pope John Paul II, three days after his death. A picture placed on the school auditorium stage showed the late pontiff holding up the Blessed Sacrament; beneath the picture was an arrangement of yellow daisies and white carnations, a crucifix, a burning candle and Vatican and American flags.
School chaplain Father Paul Burke welcomed special guests, including Greek Orthodox chancellor Very Rev. Father George Tsahakis and Rev. David Epps of the Episcopal Charismatic Church, to the diverse Catholic school. Our Lady of Mercy opened in 2000 and is 69 percent Catholic. The student body is 43 percent African-American, 44 percent Caucasian, 5 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent other races.
“We’ve had a very strong link with other Christian churches and faith communities. We ask God to pour out His blessing as we celebrate our culture and diversity in the legacy of our Holy Father,” said Father Burke.
The archbishop, on his first official visit to the school, reminded the congregation that the Easter season is a time to live with joy that comes as Christians recognize and celebrate Christ risen from the dead. “It’s a special tribute to be among young people as we recall Pope John Paul’s gifts to the church and the world, because he loved young people.”
Archbishop Gregory spoke of Pope John Paul’s challenging work in the areas of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and of how it must be carried out with openness, love and respect, and with acceptance of many areas of disagreement and disunity. The pope “worked tirelessly for ecumenism and interfaith dialogue … and clearly understood the importance of today’s Gospel and reminded us of Jesus’ desire that there be one flock in the world.”
He spoke of the special love Pope John Paul II had for the youth.
“It seemed as he grew older his dealing with young people only increased. He loved World Youth Day that brought hundreds of thousands of young people to hear him … And he always told you to live only for Christ … His teaching always was clear and consistent and rooted in the apostolic faith of the church.”
Archbishop Gregory told the story of how he was vacationing in Ireland and driving through the countryside where he tried to have his friend take a picture of him with some grazing sheep, but because he was not their shepherd the animals kept moving away from him. He assured students that as their new shepherd he is there to care for them as integral members of his flock.
“I hope over this year you will know my voice and know my love and know how much I wish to care for you in the name of Christ,” he told members of the OLM community.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Metropolitan Alexios then kissed Archbishop Gregory on each cheek and thanked the community for inviting him to the “wonderful school” and welcoming him there.
“Love is the highest gift God has given us. You have to feel blessed because of growing up in such a vibrant Catholic school. The teachers love you and the archbishop loves you, and he’s asking you to give thanks. This is a blessing, something that’s been given to all of you from God, perhaps from your parents who decided to send you to this school.”
He encouraged them to reach out to one another in love. Christ “came to live with us so we can have eternal life. He has opened the doors for us. You and I have to work to watch ourselves, to find ways to understand others instead of expecting others to understand us. We have to communicate with others, not with our minds but with our hearts … If you want to get in touch with one another you have to learn how to touch the thorns in order to get to the roses; you have to learn to understand one another,” he concluded. “It’s just a great joy to celebrate our common faith in Jesus Christ and his Mother.”
Student Betsy Benson was named as a winner of the Knights of Columbus essay contest on the 150th anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Students Brett Bartels, Morgan Conkle and Anthony McMillan were recognized as recipients of the Prudential Spirit of Community Unity Award for exemplary volunteer service, in addition to the President’s Volunteer Service Award. All students are required to give 30 hours per year of volunteer service to public organizations in the community and 10 hours to their parish, according to the OLM Web site.
A rich variety of music from the OLM Taizé Choir and the St. Philip Benizi Hispanic Choir graced the Mass, including a chant from the ecumenical Christian Taizé community in southern France, “Bless the Lord my soul and bless His Holy Name. Bless the Lord my soul who leads me into life.”
After the Mass, students, parents, priests and others enjoyed the potluck lunch with two long tables full of ethnic dishes from around the world brought to school by parents. Archbishop Gregory was presented with a basket of Mercy gear and a card signed by the entire school. In turn he gave them a coveted gift—a day off from school.
Rose Agulue, a Nigerian native who has three children in the school, said it was an important day for her to be at OLM. She prepared a Nigerian rice stew for the feast.
“It’s an honor to us and the entire community to come to support the school, for our children and our archbishop,” she said, and noted that she had attended Catholic school in Nigeria and strongly believes in the value of parochial education. “Being one family in the church and the school, it’s very important for the children to see that example.”
Her husband, John Agulue, stressed the value of celebrating diversity. “The world is one place where everybody has to like and love one another.” He said that in his community in Nigeria Catholics have good relations with other religions and that the Catholics “are very devout and families raise the children in a Christian way so there are many Catholics.” Agulue added that he’s from the same community as Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who, as bishop there, encouraged the people in their faith and prompted them to receive an education.
Their daughter, Amaka, said that Archbishop Gregory “is really nice and has a fun side too.”
Parent Marian Spencer, a native of Puerto Rico, made flan for the lunch. She said her son, Chris, is a senior and that “it’s been a wonderful experience for my son. He asked to come here, and I’ve just been overjoyed with it; (it is) a great education for him and being able to be part of a Catholic community and to share in that every day and know he can go to daily Communion at lunchtime—it is there.” She feels very confident about the future of the south side high school, currently led by interim principal JoAnn McPherson.
“Any school is going to have growing pains. It’s just going to take a little while. Blessed Trinity grew really fast, but we’re just going to be a little slower … We’re working through them.”
Spencer is pleased that the archbishop “seems to really care about the school system, which is wonderful. It seems that he’ll be … involved.”
Morgan Conkle, who was dressed as a queen for a Mardi Gras ball, chatted with her grandmother outside the front entrance to the school, landscaped with a Marian statue and flowers, on this sunny, cool spring morning. She received awards for community service and volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and through the school with a soup kitchen. She found it very meaningful to see Metropolitan Alexios speak alongside the Catholic archbishop.
Conkle is a senior also and loves OLM. “This school was a God-send for me. It saved my life. I’d been in public school and that was horrible. I was actually suspended in the fifth grade for doing the Sign of the Cross. It’s nice to be in this environment.”
She has received an academic scholarship to attend the Jesuit Spring Hill College and plans to study to become a physical therapist and work with youth with muscular dystrophy.
Conkle has found OLM to be excellent academically. “If you don’t have good grades, you don’t play sports. They really enforce the grade system here, which is good. I feel I’m going to be ready when I go to college.”
As the school is ethnically diverse, she’s found that “everybody gets along,” and that some of her best friends are African-American and Filipino. She’s also involved in a student-led FLAME retreat program at the school.
“I love it. It’s really fun. It keeps the school growing as a unit, one body. We try to break up, get rid of cliques and make it one school. It’s been pretty successful.”
Her mother passed away last year, and she’s forever grateful for the loving support she received from the school’s teachers, her friends and students who didn’t even know her well.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been at this school.”
Father Burke reported that there has been a “tremendous upsurge” in student participation in several activities, including the FLAME retreat with 150 students, and the school trip to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., with 40 youth. There has also been a lot more ecumenical activity and support from local pastors, with a high point being the visit by Metropolitan Alexios. “It has been a good year. The kids are wonderful. The college acceptances for our senior class make us all very proud. While there has been much happiness, the death of Pope John Paul the Great brought much sadness … OLM is truly a school centered on the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Mother. The Year of the Eucharist has truly been a blessing in our life,” he said. “It was appropriate that (Archbishop Gregory’s) first visit was to celebrate the diversity of our community, in honor of Pope John Paul the Great, who reached out beyond all cultures to embrace every child of God.”
Director of admissions and development Susan Botticelli noted that during the FLAME school retreat this year, many of the non-Catholic students were retreat leaders, and “they seemed to fit in very well.” And as far as the diversity of the student body, “One student told me one time that although it’s a very diverse environment, everybody feels like a family and everybody is very well respected for their differences.”
Botticelli is a new staff member at Mercy this year and has found “it’s been a great environment to work in and the people are very welcoming … We’ve had a good year in terms of academics and student achievement and the school continues to grow.”
As the school builds its enrollment, Botticelli said that through a grant from the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, OLM is offering a $1,000 discount off the $9,300 tuition to both Catholic and non-Catholic students who are accepted and enrolled by Aug. 1, and “we do have financial aid available.”
She emphasized that the school now has 21 varsity sports and that for the past two years 100 percent of graduates have been accepted into colleges. The same rate is expected for this class of 56 graduates.
The teacher stressed the idea that the small size nurtures students. “The small environment lends itself to individualized attention to the students in an academically challenging and spiritual atmosphere.”
For more information about the school, visit www.olmbobcats.org.