Students are already settling into their routines when the 8 a.m. bell officially kicks off the 158th year of Catholic education in Hannibal.
Children in pre-school through eighth grade at Holy Family School take their seats and prepare to head over to church for Mass.
“I like it here because it’s fun,” says eighth-grader Ella Ricker, whose birthday falls on the first day of school this year.
“My class is the best class ever,” she insists. “I’ve been with them since kindergarten. And the teachers are fun to be around. They always help us when we need it.”
The summer went by quickly for Ella and her 133 schoolmates. Most seem happy — or at least resigned — to being back.
“By the end of the school, I’ll definitely know more and be more prepared for high school,” says eighth-grader Natalie Vandiver.
“Hopefully,” states eighth-grader Abby Devlin, “I’ll be a better friend and will have learned to be there for others when they need me, so we can all be there for each other.”
Second-grade teacher Becky Thomas is handing out colored modeling clay to each of her students.
“You’re all created to do the good works of Jesus Christ,” she reminds them, paraphrasing the school’s theme for the new year (Ephesians 2:10).
This will be a special year for the second-graders, who will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and First Holy Communion in the spring.
“I feel called by Jesus to lead these children into a deeper relationship with Christ,” Mrs. Thomas states. “I can’t think of anything better than the Eucharist to do that with.”
Having sent her own four children to Holy Family, she wants her students to be “on fire for the Eucharist.”
“That’s one thing I love about this school — that you can feel the Holy Spirit in it,” she says. “We really focus on Jesus. We really try to get these kids to be on fire with Christ and to be his followers for the rest of their lives.”
“Source of all truth”
Holy Family is one of 38 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools in the Jefferson City diocese, serving close to 7,000 students.
Across Shamrock Lane from school, in Holy Family Church, the students find out from their pastor, Father Alexander Gabriel, that their first day of school falls this year on the Memorial of the Queenship of Mary.
“Welcome back! And welcome to all of you who are joining the school for the first time!” he tells them.
“What a wonderful day God has given us!” he declares. “We are going to receive God’s blessings through the intercession of the Blessed Mother. She will be helping us all through the school year. She prays for us and constantly leads us to her Son.”
And just as Mary taught Jesus while he was growing up, she will teach the children of Holy Family School.
“Just like Mary and Joseph, keep Jesus in your heart,” Fr. Gabriel advises. “Make sure he is always at the center of your life. Then, we will do good work with our hands.”
The student choir leads the singing of “Here I Am,” “Go, Make A Difference,” “Enter the Journey” and other appropriate hymns for the start of the school year.
After Mass, Fr. Gabriel heads over to school with two altar servers to bless the students and each classroom with holy water.
“This is a blessing for the new year,” the priest announces. “May we always be ‘hale and hearty!’”
He prays: “Grant that all the teachers and students here may always pursue the truth and learn to know you, the source of all truth.”
“Everything we do”
This is Melissa Millan’s 13th year helping to teach eighth-grade. She previously served as Holy Family’s principal for nine years.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she says. “When you get to live your faith on a daily basis and really try to reach younger people with it, there’s no better place to be.”
Having had her own children graduate from Holy Family School, she’s confident that with God’s help, she and her fellow teachers are making a big difference.
“We’re giving them opportunities throughout the day to grow in their faith,” she says.
What does she want more than anything else for her students? “For them to have faith in their life, to have Jesus. When you have that, everything else will come together.”
Principal Sara Hooley, as well as her brothers and sisters, parents and one of her grandparents, attended Holy Family School.
“Holy Family isn’t just our name. It’s who we are!” she says. “Every day, we get to live the values of the Holy Family.”
Children she once taught there are now entrusting their own children to the school.
“We have a great tradition here,” says Mrs. Hooley. “The community is super-supportive. Even if they move away, when they come back, they want their kids here. It’s nice to see that continuation.”
At the same time, “our Holy Family tree is branching out,” with new families enrolling their children and quickly feeling right at home, she says.
She likens teaching and leading at Holy Family School to being part of a tight family.
“We know everything about each other,” she says. “We help each other. We pray together, we laugh together, we cry together, we teach together. It’s a family!”
School secretary Amelia Johnson’s two daughters have graduated from Holy Family School, and her sons are now in sixth and first grades there.
“I love the atmosphere here,” she says. “I love that the kids go to Mass twice a week, I love that everyone knows each other, that everyone looks out for each other.
“It’s just such a community,” she adds. “Everybody here is so close, everybody here takes care of each other.”
Like any parent, Mrs. Johnson wants what’s best for her children.
“I want them to have a sense of security, to know that they’re valued, to know they are loved, to be kind to each other,” she says. “Obviously, I want them to get a great education and be taught a good work ethic.
“Most importantly, I want them to learn how to treat each other, how to love each other.”
These things are all thoroughly integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, “whether it’s religion class or math class or social studies.”
“It’s just taught in everything we do here,” Mrs. Johnson says.
Sixth-graders Aidan Watts, Eli Wiley and Thatcher Johnson are reacclimating well to life in the classroom.
“I’ve been here since kindergarten,” says Eli. “I have a lot of good friends here.”
“The teachers are really nice,” says Thatcher. “They help you.”
His favorite subject is science because “I like doing experiments.”
Aidan and Eli like history and social studies because they enjoy “learning about things of the past,” according to Aidan.
All three say they want to study hard, get good grades and make their parents proud.
They ask for prayers for them to be patient with their friends and to know and do what’s right.
“Pray that we all have a good year,” says Eli.
“And for us to be grateful and thankful,” Aidan adds.
Ella Ricker asks for prayers for “a great year.”
Abby Devlin suggests praying “for everyone to stay healthy and have a good relationship with each other.”
She’s set on taking her faith with her to the public high school next year.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t really know what our faith is actually about,” she says. “I want to be able to answer questions if someone wants to know what I believe and why I believe it.”
She’s confident that she’ll be able to offer educated answers “because we really learn our faith here.”
Joe and Nicki Knowlton are on their way back to Lafayette, Indiana, after dropping their daughter off at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
They’re happy to have stopped off in Hannibal for morning Mass.
“The community life here is amazing,” says Mrs. Knowlton. “The priest is a great catechist and he’s very good with the kids. He teaches them what they need to know at their level without watering it down.”
The couple plan to share what they heard with their own children back home.
Parishioner Collin Anderson graduated from Holy Family School in 2000. He and his wife Lindsay now have a kindergartener and second-grader there.
“What hasn’t changed is how good of an education you get and how faith-focused it is,” says Mr. Anderson. “It was really strong when I was there, and it still is.”
His own fifth-grade teacher at Holy Family was one of his older son’s teacher’s last year.
“The environment they have is awesome,” he says. “The teachers are amazing.”
He remembers moving up to high school and feeling well prepared — “not only from an education standpoint but also from a young-adult standpoint.”
“They prepare you here not just for high school,” he says. “They instill important values at a young age and show you how to make God the center of your life, no matter what happens.”
He’s grateful that Holy Family Parish is strong enough to be able to support “such a phenomenal school.”
“Sometimes, I think we take it for granted,” he acknowledges. “I know I do.”
“Come and see”
A couple of days into the school year, the students are back in church for Mass with Fr. Gabriel.
He blesses the students’ backpacks and calls down special blessings on parents, teachers and members of the community.
“When people ask you about your church or your school or your faith life, tell them to ‘come and see,’” the priest advises. “Invite them to come and experience who we are and what we can share with them.”
Mrs. Thomas says she loves Holy Family School and is grateful to be a part of it.
“It really does nurture the mind, the body and the spirit,” she says.
She lauds the active parents and all the volunteers who help things run smoothly.
“We’re thankful to have parents who care, who love their children, who want them to have the best education and a faith-filled life,” she says.
She suggests that when things aren’t going well and students are having a bad day, parents should start by praying about it with their children.
“Bring it to Jesus — whatever the problem is,” she advises. “Take it to the cross. Let them see you do that. It’s the best thing you can model for them.”
Mrs. Millan says the Holy Family School community creates an environment with high expectations.
“Students are going to do well here — academically and in their faith,” she says.
She’s convinced that no parent will ever regret making their children’s faith their No. 1 priority.
“Everything else will fall into place when you have that relationship with Jesus Christ and you model it for your kids, and then they get the opportunity to experience it firsthand every day in their education,” she says.