In honor of Catholic Schools Week, Jason looks back at a piece he wrote when his own Catholic grade school closed.
My Catholic School education, especially my time at St. Clement grade school greatly shaped the person I am today. I still remember little details about my time at St. Clement quite vividly. For instance, I can tell you that the song “Here I am Lord” is number 198 in your Glory and Praise Hymnal. That’s because that was our pastor Father Gary’s favorite church hymn, and so we would always sing it for him. I swear that sometimes, we would sing that two or three times during the weekly school mass, I often suspected that that was the only song the music teacher knew how to play.
St. Clement was such a big part of who I was then. School there every day, and then Scouts on Tuesday night, basketball practice on Mondays and Wednesdays. Basketball games on Saturday. Mass on Sunday. You get the picture, I was there everyday, and there was a space and time when little else mattered besides what happened beyond those walls. I gave my life to that school—and received so much more in return. I’m young and still learning, but many of life’s lessons that I have learned so far took root at St. Clement. I would not be half the man I am today if it wasn’t for the education I received there—inside and outside the classroom, even from those teachers we didn’t really like when we were there. Some of my best friends went to St. Clement, and I’m proud of the fact that today they’re like family.
Some people would disagree with my assessment of a St. Clement school education. They would quickly point to its flaws, but of course it’s easy to find fault in something that you are so intimately connected to. St. Clement was a school like any other, one that at times did need improvement, but usually of things that were out of people’s control. For instance, no matter how many times they would raise funds to fix the leaky roof, it never seemed to help. Some people didn’t like Fr. Gary’s no nonsense country boy approach to a parish in the “big city.” But the facts are undeniable, while pastors that came before or after him put St. Clement in debt and helped make us the laughing stock of the Catholic community in town, Fr. Gary and his financial background put St. Clement in the black and when I graduated from there, the school was growing, and they were adding classrooms. While I went to school there, we were even able to build a gym which in many ways took upon a life of its own and added to the character of the school. As soon as Fr. Gary left, St. Clement once again was plagued by debt, and unsavory characters who had either literally or figuratively raped St. Clement of its resources were allowed to continue to stick around.
Just as St. Clement was such a big part of my life, Fr. Gary was there too, along for the ride for all of the big moments of my formative years, from being one of the first people to shake my hand as I approached the finish line of the Positive Awareness 5K race in 7th grade with a cast on my leg, to being there when I installed a flag pole at St. Clement as part of my Eagle Scout project. I remember some people not familiar with the school questioned why St. Clement didn’t have a flag pole in the first place, and yet that didn’t seem unusual to me. St. Clement always received the short end of the stick from the diocese, the other parishes in the city, even its own parishioners themselves, but what it didn’t have in material resources or things considered “essential” it made up for in the dedication of its teachers and staff to their students who received a high quality education. I don’t think that Fr. Gary would have been happy with the way things turned out today, and I can only hope that the Bishop and Fr. Mike are honest with the parishioners and explain the whole story when they finally decide to formally announce the decision to close St. Clement School. The truth is that it’s been a done deal for awhile.
I still think about Fr. Gary a lot, especially when I hear “Hear I am Lord” in church and will never forget serving his funeral the morning after my senior prom. I realize looking back on that day now that that was the end of an era for St. Clement. Little did I know that only a few years later the school would be closed. I had wondered the entire mass if they would play Fr. Gary’s favorite hymn. And then suddenly as I stood there, holding the bishop’s Crosier, and holding back tears we began to process out of the church, I heard that familiar first line
“I the Lord, of sea and sky, I have heard my people’s cry…”
It’s just a shame that after this year there won’t be any school kids left to sing that song for Fr. Gary anymore.
RIP Fr. Gary
RIP St. Clement School