97 explore their God-given gifts at this year’s Aquinas Academy


Ninety-seven sixth- and seventh-graders representing 32 Catholic schools in the Jefferson City diocese participated in the 2018 Aquinas Academy, held June 25-29 at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico.

This is the 32nd year for the academy, an enrichment program sponsored by the diocese’s Catholic School Office and staffed by teachers and volunteer counselors.

Its purpose is to provide academic opportunities for students as they explore their gifts and talents.

“You all have so many gifts, and you’re just beginning to discover what they are,” Lois VanBoening, a longtime Aquinas Academy faculty member, told the students. “We hope that as your life goes on, you continue to discern and see what God has given you, and how you can use those gifts to give back to Him and other people.”

Father Paul Clark, who has been on the Aquinas Academy faculty since 2009, noted that there are many summer enrichment camps for gifted students.

“But this one focuses on the fact that with giftedness comes responsibility; you’ve been given these gifts by God to glorify Him and serve other people,” said Fr. Clark, associate pastor of St. Patrick parish in Rolla and Holy Cross parish in Cuba.

Participants were nominated by their teachers and school principals based on their academic achievement; excellent behavior and Christian values; maturity level; and standardized test scores.

They stayed in residence halls and kept busy with a mix of organized academic, social and spiritual activities.

Students could study art, chemistry, website development, creative writing, drama, psychology, investigative science, mathematics, life science, music, physics-architecture-mathematical modeling, and French.

Each took part in classroom instruction and challenging group projects.

They also attended a dance and took a field trip to Hannibal, where they visited Sawyer’s Creek and tested their bowling skills at Ten Pin Alley.

The week closed with Mass, followed by an opportunity for students to talk about some of the things they had learned about themselves.

Many said they learned about working as a team, achieving discipline, learning from other people about one’s own gifts, keeping an open mind, trying new things, helping other people, cheering people up, overcoming shyness and making new friends.

“That’s always one of my favorite parts of the week,” said Fr. Clark. “For some of them, this is the first time it’s been impressed upon them that they’re to use the gifts for other people.”

Others who were attending the academy a second time talked about the progress they’ve made on that front since last summer.

“That’s never just a one-time realization,” he stated. “We’re always trying to figure out how do we use our gifts and talents to bring glory to God and be of service to others.”


Passing it along

Fr. Clark attended Aquinas Academy as a seventh-grader at Mary Immaculate School in Kirksville.

He remembers that Monsignor David Cox, who is now pastor of the Kirksville parish and of St. Rose of Lima parish in Novinger, was on the faculty that year, teaching science.

“You always have this team of great teachers sharing their gifts and representing a variety of vocations,” said Fr. Clark. “It was neat to see that as a middle-schooler and it’s really cool to be part of it as a priest.”

Fr. Clark served as an Aquinas Academy counselor for several summers while he was in college. 

He began teaching science at the academy after completing his biology degree in 2009 and hasn’t missed a year since then.

He noted that others have been on the faculty twice as long as he has or even longer.

“We also witnessed a few parents who are alumni of Aquinas Academy, dropping their children off,” he said. “That’s been becoming more common the past few years.”

Although the emphasis isn’t on vocations, “how can vocations not be a part of a camp that focuses on what gifts and talents God has given you?” he said.

“Our gifts and talents are intimately connected to our calling from God, and how we live out that calling has a lot to do with the gifts and talents He gives us,” he stated.

He noted that a team of counselors helps make sure the week goes smoothly — sometimes improvising as they go. For instance, they had to set up the gym for this year’s kickball tournament when rain kept it from being held outside.

Several of them are Aquinas Academy alumni, including his sister, Natalie Clark. This was her third year as a counselor.

Likewise, this was Sarah Berendzen’s first year teaching French at Aquinas Academy. She previously served as a counselor and also attended the academy while in grade school.

“The counselors really give a lot of themselves throughout the week,” said Fr. Clark. “It’s such a witness to these sixth- and seventh- graders. As adults, they’re showing by working at the camp how they use their gifts and talents for others. It’s neat to see them pass that on.”

This year’s Aquinas Academy teachers were: Jan Bahner, Richard Bahner, Miss Berendzen, Fr. Clark, Barbara Hagebusch, Brittany Hayes, Mary Kehl, Jane McMullin and Mrs. Van Boening.

The counselors were: Keegan Bird, Nolon Carter, Miss Clark, Annie Donovan, Cameron Haeffner, Logan Lucas, Sadie Rollings, Dylan Seidt, Abby Smeltzer and Anna White.