by Marie Elena Giossi
Blessed Sacrament School, Cypress Hills, was abuzz with excitement last week as they welcomed a special guest – Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
As he does annually, Bishop DiMarzio celebrated Catholic Schools Week with visits to local elementary schools. This year, he made stops at Blessed Sacrament and Salve Regina Academy, East New York, on Thursday morning, Feb. 2.
In Cypress Hills, Father Frank Shannon, pastor, and Marylou Celmer, principal, greeted the bishop when he arrived and ushered him into the auditorium, where students, faculty and parents were waiting with big smiles.
Joining the bishop were Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, diocesan superintendent of schools, and former principal of Blessed Sacrament; Anthony Biscione, associate superintendent; and Deacon Jaime Varela, the bishop’s assistant.
“We feel lucky that of all the schools, the bishop decided to come here,” said Justin Batista, an eighth grader.
“The whole school has been preparing for weeks,” added Melvin Gonzalez, also an eighth grader. His hope was that the bishop would see that Blessed Sacrament is “a great school for academics and the kids are very friendly.”
Once guests were settled in front-row seats, Father Shannon officially welcomed the bishop to the school, which marks its 98th anniversary this year. Opening the program with prayer, he led the school’s 285 students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight in a verse of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Seventh and eighth graders raised petitions of thanksgiving for the gift of Catholic education and for their parents’ hard work and sacrifices. They also offered prayers for “children who cannot attend Catholic schools.” Sixth graders led the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem.
Younger students took the stage to offer words of welcome, sing and dance. Sixth-grader Fahmy Hajj greeted the bishop in Spanish, and fifth grader Geeta Badal sang, “Climb Every Mountain.” But it was the first graders who stole the show as pairs of boys and girls executed a well-choreographed dance number.
Student representatives then presented the bishop with booklets containing handwritten letters of welcome, poems and pictures based on the Catholic Schools Week theme – “Faith, Academics, Service.”
After accepting his gifts, the bishop said how proud he was to see the “good things” students have learned.
“Catholic schools give us the opportunity to learn about life, faith and academics – things you need to be successful,” he said.
Reminding boys and girls that Catholic education is a gift, he asked students to thank their parents for sending them to a Catholic school, and to thank their principal and teachers with a round of applause.
Father Shannon joined children in putting his hands together for Principal Celmer, the faculty and staff – the people he credits with the school’s success. He’s eager to extol the students’ academic performance, the low faculty turnover rate and especially the overall Catholic Christian identity. The student body is 87% Catholic and, he noted, all students attend Mass in church at least once weekly.
Values, Discipline, Respect
“We have a real parish school. It’s a real Christian environment. We have values, discipline and a sense of family here. There’s an atmosphere of respect that’s appreciated in this community,” he said.
Neighborhood families, he explained, are no strangers to violence, having seen their own children killed on the streets in recent years.
“The community sees our school as a haven of respect, safety and goodness,” he said. “There’s no racism, no bullying. We don’t allow the dirt spoken on the streets to be spoken here.”
A Catholic Schools Week visit with the bishop wouldn’t have been complete without “Stump the Bishop,” a game in which students take turns asking questions of their chief shepherd – though he stipulated that math and geography were off limits.
Most questions were focused on his vocation – how he came to believe in Jesus and if it is hard to be bishop. He shared that he became friends with Jesus when he was a little boy and that being bishop is hard work. “There are problems to solve and when you’re doing God’s work, it all works out.”
Children asked if he’s won a Nobel Peace Prize and whether or not he’ll become a cardinal or pope, to which he replied, “Those are honors, not things you aspire to.”
One boy surprised everyone when he said, “I want to be a bishop too.” The bishop responded with a simple smile and nod.
“We were honored to have the bishop visit,” Principal Celmer said. “I was extremely proud of my students today. They did an excellent job welcoming the bishop.”
The bishop presented the principal with a plaque to commemorate his visit and he shook hands with every teacher.
“We work so hard to raise money for the schools. It’s so nice to see it in practice, to see happy students,” he said.
Before heading to East New York, Bishop DiMarzio told students, “Keep your wonderful enthusiasm. When the classroom is happy and everyone supports each other it is so much easier to learn.”