By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 8, 2018
CUMMING—A portrait of the late Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan was placed on the right side of the altar for the Founders’ Day Mass at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming Feb. 2—a nod of appreciation for the priest’s friendship to the school community.
It was Msgr. Kiernan, then pastor of All Saints Church in Dunwoody, who first helped families wanting to form a new Catholic school connect with one another. The monsignor, who died in January, also assisted by garnering support for Pinecrest from Archbishop John F. Donoghue some two decades ago.
Pinecrest’s student body of more than 780 attended the Mass in the school’s gym, celebrating the school’s 25th anniversary. Founding families, teachers, staff and parents also attended.
Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III was the celebrant for the Mass along with the Legionaries of Christ priests who serve the school community.
Bishop Shlesinger noted that the front rows were reserved for seniors wearing letter jackets, and also the founders.
“Twenty-five years is a long time. Congratulations to all who made this school flourish,” he said.
The bishop’s homily focused on the Gospel reading for the day from the second chapter of Luke—the account of how Simeon waited his whole life for the “light of the nations.”
He posed several questions to the students about the sun, the earth and how pagans once believed it to be the center of the universe and about forces that exist but cannot be seen.
“What is gravity? How do you know it exists?” he asked them.
The earth is spinning so fast, yet we don’t fly off into space, said the bishop.
“What’s the point of all this? Perhaps there’s something we don’t know and we just have to believe,” he said.
“In today’s Gospel, we have Jesus as the Son, not the s-u-n, but the s-o-n.” he said. “Do our lives revolve around him?”
There’s a lot of “stuff” to be learned at school, including facts that have practical applications.
“They say knowledge is power … but faith can move mountains,” Bishop Shlesinger told the students.
It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before seeing Christ, meeting the child Jesus in the temple with his parents.
“The one gift we have to have is the one that Simeon had,” said the bishop. “It is my dear hope that you would come to know Jesus.”
It’s not important what we know, “but who we know,” he suggested.
Bishop Shlesinger offered a prayer that all who graduate from Pinecrest Academy will know “the Lord of their lives.”
Father David Steffy, LC, president of Pinecrest, spoke after Mass, acknowledging Msgr. Kiernan for reaching out to the founding families when Pinecrest was being born.
“Pinecrest is very grateful for our founders and for Monsignor,” said Father Steffy.
Families started the school
Each Founders’ Day celebration pays tribute to the founding families, including Arlene and John Gannon, Judy and Bill Guilfoil and Cathy and David Hanson.
Pinecrest was founded by a group of Catholic educators, businessmen and lay leaders, in collaboration with the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement. Pinecrest Academy opened in 1993 offering grades kindergarten through eighth.
The academy opened its doors on Sept. 8 of that year at a former elementary school in the Crabapple area, with a student body of 29. At that time, it was the first independent, private Catholic elementary school established to serve Atlanta’s growing Catholic population.
“Because it was so difficult to get children into Catholic schools in the early 90’s, my husband, John, was encouraged by a Legionary priest to come to Atlanta and open a school. At the same time, a priest named Father Martin, LC, encouraged me also,” recalled Arlene Gannon, on the occasion of the school’s 20th anniversary. “My husband went on a retreat in February 1993, and God placed on his heart to have a school open by September.”
Cathy Hanson, a friend of the Gannons, located a closed school building in Crabapple. Her husband, David, and John Gannon negotiated a lease for use of the property until a move to All Saints Church.
In 1998, Pinecrest moved to its current 68-acre campus on Peachtree Parkway in Cumming. The high school opened in 2003.
An honorary paladin
On behalf of the community, Father Steffy made Bishop Shlesinger an official member of the family, gifting him with a hat and shirt.
“So now, you’re a paladin,” said the priest in reference to the school’s mascot.
Bishop Shlesinger admitted it was time to go back to school to conduct much-needed research. “I don’t even know what a paladin is,” he said.
Paladins were peers of Charlemagne’s court and defenders of the faith. Judy Guilfoil shared the story of how the Pinecrest mascot came to be during a reception after Mass.
“We were in North Carolina, and we hadn’t decided on a mascot,’ she recalled.
She was swimming and a little boy nearby mentioned he was an artist. Guilfoil swam to his family’s boat to take a look at his sketchbook. She was thumbing through it and spotted a knight-like character. She questioned him, and he explained it was a paladin.
“I was just screaming,” said Guilfoil.
They went back and sold the mascot idea to the school community.
Guilfoil said it’s nice to be back on campus “amongst the people who are living the mission.”
It’s special to visit such an “alive community,” added Bishop Shlesinger.
“It brings joy to my heart,” he said.
The school first met at the Crabapple location but later moved to be a pop-up school situated in All Saints’ parish activities center with the support of Msgr. Kiernan.
“He was very, very instrumental,” she said.
When Guilfoil and Arlene Gannon first met years earlier, Gannon asked her “Do you want to start a school?”
They both had education degrees.
During the three years at All Saints, Guilfoil would arrive at 5 a.m. to help prepare for the students each day. At the end of the day, everything had to be rearranged for other parish activities.
“Every day, the children brought all their books. It trained us so much in order and simplicity,” said Guilfoil.
The challenges only helped the community to be closer.
“There’re difficulties. It elevates everyone,” she said.
Guilfoil’s husband, Bill, mentioned that 16 religious vocations have come from Pinecrest, as well as numerous marriages. Bill Guilfoil is director of advancement for the school and senior advisor to the president.
Bishop Shlesinger took a tour of the school and attended a lower school pep rally. The children chanted, “Bishop Ned, Bishop Ned,” and several held large photos of him attached to sticks. Lower school dean of students Jay Lynch served as an enthusiastic emcee.
A trio of teachers sang a version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and fifth-grade students Jude Klapka and Brianna Novo presented their thoughts on respect as a virtue.
Klapka said while it’s hard to like everyone you meet, it’s necessary to respect all people.
“Negativity and disrespect don’t have a home here,” he said.
Novo talked about a family trip to a national park and respect for creation.
“We have to respect our nation’s treasures so they will be here for generations,” she said.
The bishop, an avid fisherman, received a new fishing shirt from the students. Representatives of each grade level went fishing for prizes in an inflatable pool, catching awards such as Popsicle parties, crazy sock days and extra recess time.
Bishop Shlesinger fished for a prize for the entire lower school, ultimately catching the privilege of a “green and gold dress-down day” for students.
“Enjoy your gifts,” he told them.
Pinecrest will continue to celebrate its 25th year with activities including a fall photo exhibit.