The energy level spiked as Helias Catholic High School’s graduating seniors joined in singing a worship anthem at the end of their Baccalaureate Mass.
“You’re the name above all names! You are worthy of our praise! And my heart will sing, ‘How great is our God!’”
The Mass and the graduation ceremony that followed came more than a month later than originally planned.
Protocols for social distancing due to COVID-19 placed all 186 graduates in chairs spread 6 feet apart in the Rackers Fieldhouse the afternoon of June 19.
It was the first time the graduating seniors gathered as a class since in-school instruction was suspended on March 18.
The Mass was offered in memory of Jackson Careaga, a member of the Class of 2020 who died last October.
“Seniors, you’ve had a heck of a year, one for the history books,” said Father Stephen Jones in his last homily as president of Helias Catholic.
“You have experienced great tragedy, sadness and loss,” he said. “You’ve experienced great success and glory. Let Jesus share these things with you as you go forth into the next chapter of your lives.
“I promise you — I promise you! — you won’t regret it,” he said.
It was the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“We are the object of Jesus’s love,” said Fr. Jones, “and the ultimate good that His Sacred Heart desires for us is a living relationship with God — intimate union and communion with Him. In other words, heaven.”
Created in God’s image, all must aspire to emulate His perfect love.
“It must form and direct our lives — the way we treat others, the way we treat ourselves, the choices we make,” said Fr. Jones.
A tumultuous downpour gave way to sunshine in time for commencement exercises that evening at the Crusader Athletic Complex.
Families gathered in assigned seats, continuing to practice social distancing.
Principal Kenya Fuemmeler said that when the Helias Catholic faculty picked “Grace” as the theme for this academic year, “I don’t think any of us understood how much grace we were going to need in the year 2020.”
She said the students met the challenges of distance learning and cancelled activities with resilience and resolve.
“We know they are well prepared as they leave the walls of our school,” she said.
“Heck of a day”
Victor Bell, a history and social studies teacher and coach who arrived at the school when the seniors were freshmen, spoke of the consuming, self-giving love their parents have been showing for them since before they were born.
“And you, ultimately, are going to do that,” he said. “You’re going to love something more than you love yourself.”
The Class of 2020 voted overwhelmingly to have Mr. Bell as their commencement speaker.
In an interactive format that mirrored one of his classes, he prayed with them and pointed out positive character traits that he had observed in individual students.
Among these were working persistently hard, doing the right thing when no one is watching, setting and achieving high aspirations, making sacrifices for the greater good, speaking honestly, leading humbly, giving full effort, helping friends become their best selves, and persevering through pain and adversity.
“You’ve been building all these characteristics throughout your last four years here,” he noted.
He shared a quote from college basketball coach Jim Valvano: “If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”
Graduating seniors Jack Crull and Holly Hentges received the Fr. Helias Award for their outstanding contributions to Helias Catholic during their four years of attendance.
Mr. Crull led the opening prayer for graduation.
“Heavenly Father, we ask You to accompany us as we face new adventures and challenges,” he prayed. “May the paths we take always lead to You and to the eternal joy that is ours through Your Son.”
Miss Hentges proclaimed a reading from the Book of Jeremiah, which included: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord — plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
This year’s graduates performed a combined total of 15,500 hours of service over their four years.
The class included 19 who maintained 4.0 cumulative grade-point averages; two with perfect ACT scores; eight who completed more than 500 hours of community service apiece; 29 Bright Flight scholars and one student who is a Top 100 Missouri Scholar.
Collectively, the graduates have been offered more than $4.8 million in college scholarships, including $386,000 in A+ scholarships.
The co-valedictorians were Gabriel Borgmeyer, Samuel Bruce, Molly Bruns, Griffin Buschjost, Luke Distler, Grace Holloway, Andrew McDonald, Madaeline Mueller, Jonathan Myers, Sophey Nivins, Jacob Schepers, Carson Schroer, Elle Wilbers and Veronica Worthen.
Each carried a perfect GPA while taking at least four Advanced Placement classes.
Griffin Buschjost and Veronica Worthen received the Veterans of Foreign Wars Award, based on citizenship, scholarship, and good attendance.
Gabriel Borgmeyer and Olivia Hennon received the American Legion Citation, based on leadership, scholarship and service.
In interviews after Mass, students said they had grown to love the familial camaraderie that helped define their years at Helias Catholic.
“I’m going to miss the community and all the teachers and friends that I’ve met and grown in relationship with for the past four years,” said Katelyn Brenneke, a member of St. Margaret of Antioch parish in Osage Bend.
“The family aspect of it!” said Madelyn Luebbering, also a member of St. Margaret parish. “You can be friends with any and everybody here, and the administration, teachers, staff all care about you and would give anything to help you out.”
Ms. Luebbering and Ms. Brenneke plan to be roommates at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg this fall.
Graduating seniors said they believe God helped them become better people through their time at Helias.
“Because I’ve got God as No. 1 in my life, and with Him, I can accomplish anything I want to,” said Samuel Bruce, member of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City.
“I’ve made so many friends,” said Ms. Luebbering. “I feel like I’ve gotten much deeper into the Catholic faith through Him.”
Ms. Brenneke said she’s grown in love and knowledge of God and developed character traits that will help her throughout adulthood.
She’s also learned “never take a moment for granted, because tomorrow is not guaranteed.”
“Happy to help”
Members of the class said they’ve been aware of God’s day-to-day presence at the school.
“He’s absolutely been here with all of us, through the good times and the bad times,” said Mr. Bruce.
“He is watching all of us, and He is happy to help us get through this time,” said Jason Haselhorst, a member of St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos.
“I’ve learned that you need to take God with you wherever you go,” said Miss Luebbering. “He will get you through any circumstance, good and bad.”
Mr. Bruce recalled the day he walked into religion class and found out that a classmate had died the previous day.
“You could hear a pin drop throughout the whole school,” he said.
He and his classmates stormed heaven with prayers, solidifying in the process their camaraderie and friendship.
“There’s no way to describe it,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t put into words how meaningful that is.”
Now and forever
Miss Luebbering asked for prayers for mental and emotional wellbeing for the entire class.
“Keeping yourself healthy and knowing when to ask for help is big, especially in light of this past year,” she said.
Ms. Brenneke requested prayers for the graduates to keep God at the center of their lives and know that He will help them find their way.
Those who were interviewed said they intend to remain Catholic.
“To me, that means trusting in God in everything that you do and knowing He has a plan for you,” said Mr. Haselhorst.
“I want to be fully involved with the Church,” said Mr. Bruce. “I know that with God, I can do anything, and I want to spread His love to everyone else and make this world a better place.”
“God is there for us,” said Ms. Brenneke. “I want to spend the rest of eternity with Him — and growing to know and love Him in this life will help me in the next.”
Part of the main
Ms. Fuemmeler, who will succeed Fr. Jones as the school’s president July 1 while continuing to serve as principal, thanked him for his seven years of “service, leadership and pastoral care.”
She credited his leadership and commitment to building up the school’s Catholic identity with bringing new life and growth.
Fr. Jones will serve as the school’s chaplain while carrying out his new role as diocesan director of stewardship.
He reminded the graduating seniors that they are an important part of something much larger than themselves.
“Strive to be the best human you can be,” he urged them. “Strive to build up humankind for good. Strive to love your neighbor as yourself.
“Strive to love God and serve Him, seeing His face in every other person you meet, no matter who they are.”
Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia was to hold its graduation on June 26. Sacred Heart High School in Sedalia will hold its baccalaureate and graduation on July 25 and 26.