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Hope and Prayers For A ‘Very Joyful’ School Year in Uvalde, Texas

UVALDE, Texas – When it was time for the homily at an August 15 Mass to open the school year for Sacred Heart Catholic School in Uvalde, Texas, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller abandoned his prepared talk and instead had the students stand so he could speak to them directly. 

“We want you to have a very joyful year,” Archbishop Siller of San Antonio said. “We all know it will be a very special year, that beautiful things will happen in a deeper way.” 

The message was the start of what proved to be a celebratory and hopeful first day of school for a community trying to move forward as they still grieve the loss of 19 students and two teachers killed by a gunman at nearby Robb Elementary School almost three months ago. 

  • (Photo: Courtesy of Sacred Heart Catholic School)
  • Sacred Heart Catholic School Principal Joseph Olan said that while he saw some anxious students at the beginning of the day, by the time the day ended, “the students were very lively, ready to share, ready to talk about what they want to be when they grow up.” (Photo: Catholic Extension)
  • (Photo: Courtesy of Sacred Heart Catholic School)

Robb will be demolished so “students and staff will not have to return to the building at the site of the tragedy,” according to the district. A new school will eventually be built in its place. For now, though, many of those Robb students have enrolled at Sacred Heart for the 2022-23 school year. 

Sacred Heart’s enrollment has almost doubled as a result. Last year there were 55 students across its preschool-to-6th grade classrooms. There were 105 students present on the first day on August 15, with a number of families expected to enroll in the coming months, according to principal Joseph Olan. More than four dozen of the enrolled students attended Robb last year, he said. 

In light of the changes, Olan decided to start the school year with a half-day that included the Mass at the adjacent Sacred Heart Catholic Church, followed by a reception in the cafeteria and an opportunity for the students to meet their teachers and settle into their classrooms. 

“We knew it would be a half day because we felt that it would be better for the students to gradually get in and to make it more of a celebration than actually academics or anything,” Olan told The Tablet. “We really just wanted a welcome back celebration, and we wanted the families to be here.” 

Olan added that a number of families reached out during the summer and said they wanted to stay at the school for the first day, which also factored into their decision. When it was all said and done, and the school had emptied, he described it as a “wonderful day” that “exceeded expectations.” 

“Today was a fantastic day of unity, grace, love,” Olan said. “You could tell it was a first day of school.” 

Speaking with The Tablet, Archbishop Siller said he asked to celebrate the first day of school Mass to build on his efforts in the Uvalde, which have included a number of Masses and visits with the community in recent months. 

“Today, it was important to come because I saw the openness for trust,” Archbishop Siller said. “People from the very beginning, little by little, they trusted me, so I said I should come if I can be of help in bridging this beginning of the school year because trust is so important.” 

The Tablet was there at the end of May when Archbishop Siller celebrated Masses in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. The mood there was somber, and there was a collective state of shock that accompanied the people in the pews. 

Archbishop Siller’s most recent visit to Uvalde was about a month ago after the videos, and initial report of law enforcement’s response to the shooting were released. He said the mood then was anger because people realized the mistakes that were made.

Fast forward to August 15, however, and Archbishop Siller highlighted how the mood was markedly different from what he experienced in Uvalde prior, describing it as a “remarkable beginning of joy and prayer, a sense of belonging and seeing that they were comfortable.” He said now the work of integration and accompaniment must continue. 

“Everyone is in different places, and we need to respect them, and we need to be willing to accompany them to respect them, to promote them, and to integrate them,” Archbishop Siller said. “That’s a call not only to accept, but to welcome, to promote, to integrate, and then to see how they’re integrated.”

When the Mass concluded, Archbishop Siller, Olan, and the students and families that filled the Sacred Heart pews walked over to the school cafeteria for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to acknowledge the cafeteria’s new renovations, followed by a reception. 

Families and school staff enjoyed coffee and snacks, including cupcakes decorated with back-to-school images. The tables were decorated with red table cloths — matching ribbons worn in the female student’s hair — and the stage was decorated with balloons and giant “ABC” and “123” signs. 

Eventually, teachers led students to their classrooms, where they were all surprised with backpacks and supplies donated by Antonian College Preparatory High School — one of the approximate 35 area archdiocesan schools. Parents waited in the cafeteria, and an hour later, the students returned for dismissal. 

“My expectation for the school year is for students to truly enjoy their academic experience or journey while keeping Jesus at the center of their lives,” Olan said, “and to grow with one another, to really show unity, and to show that you can become stronger.”