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In Catholic schools, students bond 'over religion, God, and more'

All 64 archdiocesan schools represented at second annual All Schools Mass

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MIAMI | Students and faculty representing all 64 Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Miami gathered Jan. 31, 2024, at St. Mary Cathedral to celebrate the second annual All Schools Mass, a highlight of Catholic Schools Week in South Florida. 

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As student flag bearers carrying the banners of their schools paraded into the cathedral, Father Luis Flores, administrator of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Miami, watched proudly. 

“It’s beautiful to see all the schools come together, all of the kids,” said Father Flores, adding that having a parish with a school “is a gift.”

“They give life to the parish,” he said.

Father Elvis Gonzalez, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel in Miami, agreed, adding that the schools are a ministry of the mother Church, as well as individual parishes.

“And what a beautiful vocation to form, not only the minds, but also the souls of these young men and ladies,” said Father Gonzalez.

Over 35,000 students receive that formation daily in the archdiocese's Catholic schools, where they are mentored by teams of priests, religious, teachers, principals, and staff.  

At the All Schools Mass, Archbishop Thomas Wenski called Catholic education “good news,” and thanked the educators who make it possible.

“The goal of Catholic education — and what makes Catholic education “good news” — is the development of the whole person. And in pursuing this integral formation, which aims to prepare our students for life — both this life and the life to come — we are convinced that all human values find their fulfillment and unity in Christ,” Archbishop Wenski said.

A school system that is Christ-centered while providing a quality education may be the reason why many families continue to enroll their children in Catholic schools. An increase in the financial assistance awarded through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (better known as Step Up for Students), has also helped.

According to Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools, enrollment has grown steadily in the archdiocese over the last 10 years, with four years of consecutive growth.

The youngest students at the All Schools Mass, Amaya Belape, 6, and Ayena Farrell, 5, from St. Malachy School in Tamarac, which reopened this year, take part in the All Schools Mass Jan. 31, 2024, at St. Mary Cathedral. Representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools gathered for the second annual  Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

The youngest students at the All Schools Mass, Amaya Belape, 6, and Ayena Farrell, 5, from St. Malachy School in Tamarac, which reopened this year, take part in the All Schools Mass Jan. 31, 2024, at St. Mary Cathedral. Representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools gathered for the second annual Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

Nicole Tijerino, a sophomore at the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, is benefitting from a high school pilot program launched there as a result of increasing enrollment.

“It’s an awesome feeling to be part of that class, especially because we had a high school before,” said Nicole. (According to a parish history, Mary Immaculate High School closed in 1986 due to a decline in enrollment. In April 2022, the Basilica announced it would reopen its high school for the 2023-2024 academic year.)

“Everyone goes to that big public high school [in Key West],” Nicole said. “This Catholic high school will be an opportunity for everyone to get a feel for something else. It’s a good opportunity because we don’t have another Catholic school down there.

Nicole previously attended the public school in the Keys. She transferred to the Basilica School in fourth grade, and remembers it as a “big change, and rough, at first.” But she appreciated how the school welcomed her with open arms, something she says is a feature of Catholic schools.

“I appreciate that family feeling, and the way that we can incorporate the Lord into everything that we do,” Nicole said.

Similarly, Ana Lopez, a sixth grader living in Miami, transferred from a charter school to a Catholic school.

Joanna Morris, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, sits alongside her students at the All Schools Mass, Jan. 31, 2024, at St. Mary Cathedral. They set out from Key West at 4:30 a.m. to attend the Mass. Representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools gathered for the second annual  Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Joanna Morris, principal of the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, sits alongside her students at the All Schools Mass, Jan. 31, 2024, at St. Mary Cathedral. They set out from Key West at 4:30 a.m. to attend the Mass. Representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools gathered for the second annual Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

“My family was raised Catholic in Mexico, so it’s very much in our family legacy,” she said. “Going to middle school, there weren’t many good public options. So my parents looked more into Catholic schools, and they found St. Thomas the Apostle.”

The switch, she said, helped kick off her Catholic education and deepened her religious roots. “Although I had grown up going to church, it was different going to a [Catholic] school. It had me more connected to my faith.”

Currently a senior at St. Brendan High School in Miami, Ana believes the built-in community atmosphere typical of a Catholic school is also a blessing.

The All School Mass gave her, and all in attendance, the opportunity to experience that connection of faith and community as one big family. And other, unexpected bonds surfaced, as Ana discovered when she met Alexandra Creed, a senior Msgr. Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens. Both were selected to read the Prayers of the Faithful at the All Schools Mass, and during an interview with the Florida Catholic, they discovered they were both majoring in biochemistry and excitedly waiting to hear back from colleges.

“Here, even with people that you don’t know personally, you’re going to be able to bond over religion and God, and more,” Ana said.

Carrying their school banners, representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools wait outside St. Mary Cathedral Jan. 31, 2024, for the start of the second annual All Schools Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC

Carrying their school banners, representatives of all 64 archdiocesan elementary and high schools wait outside St. Mary Cathedral Jan. 31, 2024, for the start of the second annual All Schools Mass to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 3.