A Montgomery County parish school began its 59th academic year with a lesson taught by top instructors – the Blessed Mother, the Holy Spirit and Christ himself.

Some 200 students, parents, faculty and staff from St. Mary School in Schwenksville gathered Sept. 3 for an outdoor Mass in the parish’s parking lot. Wearing masks and sitting on sanitized, socially distanced folding chairs, participants prayed for “the Holy Spirit to touch (their) minds,” said celebrant and pastor Father Louis Bellopede.

“We’re a Catholic school, and being [that], we’re enlightened by the Holy Spirit,” he said, noting that the church recommends praying the Mass of the Holy Spirit as classes resume each fall.

The tradition, which dates back to the mid-16th century, helps the entire school community to “know what (it is) asked to know, and to respond to that knowledge,” he said.

At the same time, the school’s patroness keeps students focused on their education and their overall development, said Father Bellopede.

“We dedicate our school year as always to the Mother of Jesus,” he said, adding that through her intercession, “we continue to know, to love and to serve God in this world, so as to be happy with him in heaven.”

Mary also assists in the school’s admissions process, said development coordinator Suzette Moyer.

Teachers at St. Mary School in Schwenksville professed an oath of fidelity to church teachings during a Sept. 3 outdoor Mass that marked the start of the new academic year, and the return to in-person learning after months of COVID-19 restrictions. (Gina Christian)

Prior to school tours, Moyer meets with prospective students and their parents for a brief prayer before the main lobby’s statue of the Blessed Mother.

The practice of invoking Mary’s aid in discerning enrollment “just happened so naturally as I talked about our school,” said Moyer.

Even among families that are not Catholic, “parents (have been) so open and receptive that we do practice our faith every day in the school,” she said.

At the Sept. 3 liturgy, teachers professed an oath of fidelity to church teaching after reciting the Nicene Creed.

Kathy Dalasio said that approach is precisely why she enrolled her children – Lauren, now in seventh grade, and Katie, a recent graduate — at St. Mary’s.

“This is a wonderful school,” said Dalasio, noting that she believed a Catholic education set students “on the right path of life, to do God’s work.”

Dalasio said she was confident about St. Mary’s detailed COVID prevention protocols, which were developed according to archdiocesan standards and a parish-based task force of some 30 members.

(View scenes from St. Mary School’s Mass of the Holy Spirit on Sept. 3, 2020.)

“I feel like the school is really following the guidelines,” she said. “We’re just trying to get back to some kind of normal, because I feel you really learn in class.”

Principal Philip Repko agreed, saying that the learning process is “monumentally better in person.”

After weeks of virtual interactions, “adults have Zoom meeting and conference fatigue,” said Repko, himself a St. Mary’s alumnus. “So imagine when you’re six.”

Eighth grade student Grace Fitzgerald said she was eager to return to the classroom.

“I like being back here,” she said. “I’m happy to see my friends and the teachers and staff, because they’re all very kind and generous.”

Fitzgerald admitted that the outdoor Mass “didn’t feel normal at first,” but as the liturgy progressed “it started to feel like … we were back in school and everything was OK again, without corona.”

In his homily, Father Bellopede encouraged students to view the pandemic experience as “a way to grow, to be a little bit more conscious of people around us, (and) … to be very mindful of our health and the health of others – especially the spiritual health of all of us.”

For that, the Eucharist is essential, he said.

“This is the center of our life,” he said. “Without Mass, without Jesus, we’re nothing. We exist because of him.”

Father Bellopede challenged students to see themselves as missionary disciples of Christ, “the greatest teacher of all.”

“(Religion) is not just a subject that we’re graded on; it’s a whole way of life,” he said. “Today, the world looks at you and looks at me to find out the message of Jesus.”