“I love being here with my friends and teachers, and that they taught me grace and that they love me very much.”
Elaina Verslues and 146 of her classmates were graduating from Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.
“I’m gonna’ miss this place,” she said.
Sunshine rained down on the graduates and their families and guests as the Commencement festivities got under way the afternoon of Sunday, May 23.
Flags of the United States, Missouri and the Holy See adorned the platform on the 50-yard line in the Crusader Athletic Complex.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, handed out the diplomas.
Graduating senior Katelyn Farr, one of two recipients of this year’s Fr. Helias Award, led the opening prayer.
She asked God to help the graduating seniors remember that they were created in His image and likeness and called to be saints who serve Him and their neighbor.
“May the paths we take lead to You and to the eternal joy that is ours through Your Son,” she prayed.
Fr. Helias Award recipient Troy Ludwig proclaimed a Scripture passage chosen by the graduating class, from Jeremiah 29. In it, God proclaims His intentions for a future of hope for His people.
Senior members of the school choir sang the class song, “The Plans I Have for You” by Jonathan Adams, which is based on the same passage.
Maureen Quinn, who taught religion and served in campus ministry at Helias Catholic for six years, gave the commencement address.
“I have watched you over the past four years become amazing people through the love of God, your families, friends and your teachers here at Helias,” said Mrs. Quinn, herself a graduate of the school.
She acknowledged that the road to graduation had been difficult, with “some gigantic boulders and some bottomless potholes.”
She urged the graduating seniors to remember that their choices have consequences.
“Live your life for God and the eternal reward of heaven,” she advised. “See God in each person you encounter and continue to care for others in the ways you already know.”
None of them may be required to give up their own lives to save someone else, “but you might need to jump in head-first and give something of yourself to make the world a better place,” she said.
Mrs. Quinn called to their attention some advice from Pope Francis: “Life is good when you are happy but much better when others are happy because of you. Let us remember that pain is a sign that we are alive, problems are a sign that we are stronger, and prayer is a sign that we are not alone.”
Helias Catholic President and Principal Kenya Fuemmeler reminded the graduating seniors that they will always be members of the Helias Crusader family.
“I hope that by your thoughts, words and actions, others will know that you are a member of the Church and a graduate of Helias Catholic,” she said.
She predicted that each of them will soon encounter failure at something they’ve never failed at before.
“Make sure you persevere!” she said. “Don’t give up!”
Echoing a directive she had received from one of her college professors, Ms. Fuemmeler urged them to be light-bearers, making the world brighter with their presence.
“May you remember to Whom you belong,” she said. “You belong to the Lord! And He designed you to be the very best version of yourself.”
Scholars and saints
This year’s Helias Catholic High School Class of 2021 includes five students committed to service to this country; 10 students with 4.0 GPAs; three students who each completed more than 500 hours of community service; 13 Bright Flight scholars and one student who is a Top 100 Missouri Scholar.
The graduates were offered more than $4 million combined in scholarships, including $275,000 in A+ scholarships.
The seven valedictorians, maintaining the class’s highest grade point average while being enrolled in four AP courses, were: Aleck Barchenski, Cole Brunnert, Joseph Cremer, Dominic Crisostomo, Grace Jenkins, Troy Ludwig and Emily Wilson.
Troy Ludwig and Katie Farr were chosen to receive this year’s Fr. Helias Award as a result of their outstanding contribution to Helias during their 4 years of attendance.
The faculty selected Justin Francka and Brooke Godbee to receive the Veterans of Foreign Wars Award, based on citizenship, scholarship and good attendance record.
The faculty selected Dominic Crisostomo and Audrey Ickes to receive the American Legion Citation, based on leadership, scholarship and service.
The class has performed a combined total of 10,000 hours of service over their four years, along with many other accomplishments.
Ninety-two percent of the graduating class is pursuing post-secondary education, and seven graduates are going directly into the workforce.
“Just the beginning”
The previous Monday, the graduating seniors gathered with parents and other family members in the school’s fieldhouse for their Baccalaureate Mass.
Father Stephen Jones, the school’s chaplain, acknowledged that they ready to move on.
“You’re ready to be done. And we’re ready for you to leave, as well!” he said.
When the laugher died down, he continued: “Because it’s time for you to go out into the world, into new things. It’s time for you to move on and experience bigger things, different things, to help you continue to learn and grow.”
He urged them to stay close to God through the sacraments of His Church.
“The sacraments are those times when we know God ‘shows up’ concretely, so that we can live our lives more fully,” said Fr. Jones.
He implored them always to remember who they are, where they came from and what they were created and called to be.
“Each and every one of us: we were created to be saints!” he said. “That’s your calling. It’s my calling. And that calling doesn’t end when you leave this place.
“In fact, in many ways, it’s just beginning,” he said. “It’s something that will stay with you for the entirety of your lives.”
He sprinkled the seniors with holy water as a sign of God’s love and care for them and “as a sacramental moment of grace to strengthen you on your journey to become the saints that you were made to be.”
Fr. Jones then asked God to “help them always remember their identity in You — made in Your image and likeness, loved and redeemed by You, and called to serve You in the world that Jesus has already conquered.”
Nikolai Careaga said he will miss his friends at Helias Catholic and will especially treasure something they taught him.
“Over the last four years, I learned how to build and deepen and strengthen relationships, and I’ll take what I learned from them and I’ll apply that to my new friends in college,” he said.
He plans to be active in Catholic campus ministry and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes while studying at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville this fall.
He said he’s grateful to the school’s faculty and administration “for putting up with us for four years.”
He asked for prayers “for us, for our futures.”
Elaina said she’s proud of her brother and sister who graduated from Helias ahead of her.
She asked for prayers “that we all have a successful life.”
“Accepting God’s plan”
Greta Hinds said she’s proud of her class for overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic and coming up with creative ways to stay connected despite it.
She plans to attend Rockhurst University in Kansas City to double-major in psychology and elementary education while playing golf.
She said she’ll miss having a personal connection with her teachers and friends and playing on the Helias golf team with her sister.
She counts among her most important lessons learned at Helias Catholic that that “God puts people in your life for a reason,” and even the smallest action can make the biggest difference in someone’s life.
“As a part of this community, I was able to intertwine faith, academics and athletics,” she said. “I was also able to have a built-in support system.”
She is especially grateful to her parents and teachers.
“Without their love, care and support, I would not be here today!” she said.
She plans on practicing her Catholic faith for the rest of her life.
“I have endured many hardships as well as great times, and none of those have been possible without God,” she said.
She is committed to “accepting God’s plan for your life and knowing that He has a greater purpose for you.”
It will involve “sharing my faith story with others to inspire them in growing their faith journey,” she said.
Greta said that if she has her own children someday, she wants to send them to Helias.
“I know that they would come out with a stronger Catholic identity, good morals for the future, and a quality education,” she said.
“Bold and courageous”
John Paul McGuire said he had become lukewarm in his faith before transferring to Helias Catholic for his sophomore year.
“When I came to Helias, I was able to integrate back into a Catholic community,” he said.
He said he’ll miss praying and serving at Mass in Helias Catholic’s beautiful chapel.
He’s grateful to Mark Rehagen, one of his favorite teachers, who taught him Latin and set a good example “of a devout and Holy Catholic.”
“To be a Catholic means to follow Christ and His Church, which He established so that we can strive for eternal life with Christ,” said John Paul. “This matters because our soul God gave us matters, to truly care for our souls is to follow the Church and to truly be a saint.”
He plans to take up seminary studies and discern a possible calling to the Priesthood.
He urges his fellow Catholics to “be bold and courageous in their faith and not shy away from our Church’s history and the Church’s teachings and be countercultural so that Christ’s message can be given to all.”