Haley Kartheiser quipped that her class should receive the grand prize for mastering change.
“COVID-19 changed our world and us,” she told her fellow graduating seniors the evening of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School’s Baccalaureate Mass. “Little did we know how fast a major change would play a vital role in our lives.”
All 63 members of the Class of 2020 gathered in the school commons in Columbia June 26 to worship God together before graduating the following day.
“We would not be here without ‘adjusting our sails,’” Miss Kartheiser insisted, “nor without the love of our parents, extended family, Tolton faculty and staff, and all of us supporting each other.”
Dressed in slate-blue gowns and mortarboards, the seniors sat six feet from one another after spending two months apart.
Not only had their classes gone from in-school to at-home on a day’s notice and all of their spring sports and events been cancelled, their “No. 1 fan” had undergone major surgery and begun aggressive cancer treatments less than two weeks before graduation.
“Father Mike (Coleman) is unable to join us in person, but he’s very much here in person,” noted Father Paul Clark, a fellow school chaplain, who presided at the Baccalaureate Mass.
Fr. Clark pointed out that God is creating a story in each of the graduating seniors.
“Many opportunities lie ahead of each and every one of you,” he told them. “And what you have learned in this past year especially plays into that story.”
He noted that the their parents and educators had helped them build a secure foundation for their future.
It’s now important for them to continue building on that foundation with “what you’ve learned about love, about willing the good of another above yourself, about the importance of service.”
“The world needs trailblazers right now,” he told them. “We need the witness of authentic love, of service to our neighbors. We need each of you to be a light to the world.”
He relayed a message he had received from Fr. Coleman who was watching the Mass by livestream:
“After cancer surgery, I am now down to one lung, but I still have my heart, and it is full of love for each of you. I will love you forever. God is good all the time. ... Praise the living God, now and forever. Amen!”
Two graduating seniors addressed their classmates after Mass.
Miss Kartheiser spoke of the uniqueness of being born in the shadow of the 2001 terrorist attacks and graduating during an international pandemic.
She shared a thought from singer and entrepreneur Jimmy Dean: “I cannot change the directions of the wind. But I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
She shared her joy of being initiated into the Catholic Church at an all-school Mass at during her freshman year at Tolton and receiving her First Holy Communion from Fr. Coleman.
She called for a moment of silence for the late Thomas Bacon, their classmate who died in April of their sophomore year.
Part of history
Graduating senior Emily Konrad reminded her classmates of their parents’ endless love and encouragement.
“We are truly grateful for the sacrifices they have made to give us all of the opportunities we are so blessed with,” she stated.
She said their teachers’ genuine care for them was reflected in the classroom, “where they motivated us, challenged us and thankfully had patience with us.”
She believes the circumstances surrounding senior year will help make her and her classmates better.
“Because we’ve seen the things we’ve seen and learned the things we’ve learned, we know what it will mean to be better sons, daughters, sisters and brothers, to be better Christians, to be the next great leaders, the next great doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers and entrepreneurs of the future,” she said.
Jill McIntosh, the school’s interim president, congratulated the seniors on behalf of the administration, faculty and staff.
“We hope you know how proud we are of each of you,” she said. “We know you will accomplish wonderful things in the years ahead.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, in a recorded message, reminded them that the Way of the Cross is the way to sainthood.
“In times of distress, we learn more about ourselves and others,” he said. “We are given the opportunity to sacrifice for a good greater than ourselves.”
He said those with ties to Tolton Catholic have a shared spirit for life, charity, faith and service.
He pointed out that the school’s namesake, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton — a former slave who endured racial discrimination while and after becoming the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably black priest in the United States — took risks and endured hardships so that people after him could have a better life.
“Fr. Tolton’s Christian way of overcoming adversity with faith and hope serves as a great model for you,” the bishop said.
Among the awards presented to the seniors were:
“Still a community”
Graduating senior Grace Brownfield plans to pursue a nursing degree at the University of Missouri in the fall.
She said the Tolton Catholic community has been like a second family to her.
“It breaks my heart that I have to leave, but I’m excited for what comes next, and I can always come back to visit,” said Miss Brownfield, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes parish.
It was hard for her to be separated from her classmates for the past two months.
“But we’re still a community,” she said. “Everyone stayed in touch and checked in on each other.”
Jacob Vossler, a member of Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville, will miss the school’s tightness.
“There isn’t anybody here who I don’t know, and I get along with just about everybody,” he said.
He and two friends plan to enter the MFA program at State Technical College of Missouri in Linn.
He said one of the hardest lessons he learned at Tolton Catholic was to listen to teachers.
“I didn’t like to listen, but they usually know what’s best,” he said. “They’ll get you on the right track for where you need to go.”
Put to the test
Jack Kiley, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, said Tolton Catholic gave him countless opportunities to make friends and develop skills that will help him for the rest of his life.
He plans to pursue a biological sciences degree at the University of Missouri in the fall.
He said he recognizes God’s presence in the hardships he and his classmates have weathered.
“Our faith wouldn’t be strong unless we were tested in it,” he said. “And this has been quite a test, this end to our senior year.”
“It’s been a great opportunity to show what we’ve learned the past four years and work on putting it into action,” he said.
Janie Steffes said Tolton Catholic has helped her grow in knowledge of the world around her and in faith in things eternal.
“God is very much a part of everything we do and a big part of going to school here,” she said. “We pray before every class. Even at sports meets, we always pray before everything and make sure that God is always part of what we’re doing.”
“Even in science or math class, we could always find a way to bring it back to God and the Catholic faith, and it always comes together,” she said.
She’s grateful especially to her parents for allowing her to go to Tolton Catholic and helping her make the most of her time there.
She said being Catholic has become an important part of who she is.
“It allows me to be the best I can be and seek to follow God in everything I do,” she said.
For people entering high school in the fall, Mr. Kiley suggested having fun and not taking it all too seriously.
“But be sure to get what you need to do done, and everything will just come naturally,” he said.
Miss Steffes advised trusting in the process and not being afraid to try something different.
“Embrace your faith and really get involved with school, your friends, activities,” she said. “And make sure you keep your faith through all of it.”
Miss Brownfield asked for prayers for resilience for her and her fellow graduating seniors — “that everyone can get through things that come at you in life like this, and that you can be stronger when you come out from them.”
Mr. Vossler requested prayers to be able to remain on campus this fall and have a relatively normal school year free of COVID-19 disruptions.
Mr. Kiley asked for prayers to help him improve the lives of people around him in any way he can.
“Because that’s what we’re here for,” he said.