By Colleen Boyle Sharp

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Like Christian witnesses in the spirit of Pentecost, the students of St. Martin de Porres School in North Philadelphia are trying hard to convey the message of peace to their neighbors.{{more}}

“Hands Across Lehigh,” a vigil that drew nearly 900 participants May 27, is the effort of Catholic grade schools in North Philadelphia to take a stand against the violence that continues to plague the city’s neighborhoods.

“I want our message to get into the hearts of the drug dealers, the gangs and the mafia and let them see what they are doing is wrong,” said Anthony Abron, an eighth-grade student at St. Martin de Porres School. Abron hopes that their peaceful demonstration will make a lasting impact.

“We as children don’t want to lose our mothers, our aunts, our uncles, our dads or our grandparents to senseless violence,” he said.

Sister Nancy Fitzgerald, S.S.J., principal of St. Martin de Porres School, said this is the fourth year the neighborhood schools have come together and organized a rally for peace. The students marched on Lehigh Avenue between St. Anne School in Port Richmond and St. Martin School in North Philadelphia. “By taking this message of peace outside our walls we hope to communicate to our students that they as Christians can become involved in the world and that their voices can make a difference,” Sister Nancy said.

Anna Coleman, who will be graduating from St. Martin de Porres School this month, lives in North Philadelphia and says she has unfortunately seen the violence first hand.

“It’s scary. Before my family moved we lived on a block with a lot of kids and there were a lot of drive-by shootings in that neighborhood,” she said. “I was always afraid it would be me or one of the kids that lived on my block who would get hurt. I hope our stand of peace will encourage others to join in trying to stop all the violence in our neighborhood.”

After a noontime prayer service, which was held in the auditorium, the school’s 381 students, most wearing red t-shirts, walked single file east on Lehigh Avenue toward Broad Street. Trailing red balloons and carrying hand-drawn peace signs, the children lined up on the south side of Lehigh Avenue. Students, faculty and family from La Salle Academy, St. Hugh of Cluny, Ascension of Our Lord and Visitation B.V.M schools filled in the empty blocks along Lehigh to join St. Martin students. Passing motorists showed their support for the demonstrators’ efforts by honking car horns, which in turn energized the students.

“I hope they see our smiles, our red shirts, our laughter and our love and know that we are happy in taking a stand for peace,” said 14-year-old St. Martin de Porres student Alexis Brown. A self proclaimed pacifist, Brown said she is encouraged that things will change for the better.

Before the march against violence ended, Sister Nancy began the sign of peace with the first student outside the school at 23rd and Lehigh. A handshake and the words “Peace be with you” passed from student to student.

“We are hoping for this neighborhood, that this will be a moment to stop and pause and watch as young people take a stand for Christianity, for community and hopefully make a difference,” Sister Nancy said.

Colleen Boyle Sharp is a freelance writer and photographer, and a parishioner of St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia.