The end of January marks the annual Catholic Schools Week observance — a time to celebrate Catholic schools.
In Norfolk and many of the communities that have Catholic schools, the week uses each day to focus on specific parts of Catholic education.
On Tuesday, the day was set aside to honor students, and Omaha Archbishop George Lucas celebrated Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Norfolk with more than 300 students. They were from 21 schools and 19 towns that extend along a perimeter that extends from Atkinson, Crofton, Wayne, South Sioux City, West Point, Dodge, Lindsay and Albion.
All the students were eighth-graders or sixth-graders, depending on the final grade offered in the individual grade schools.
Dr. Don Ridder, president of Norfolk Catholic School, helped to put the plan together for the inaugural event.
Ridder said he was familiar with the archbishop celebrating a Mass with eighth-graders during Catholic Schools Week from the years he served as principal in the Omaha Archdiocese at Mary Our Queen, St. Patrick’s and, most recently, Holy Name Catholic School.
The Rev. Dan Andrews, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, said he and many priests are grateful for the Catholic education they received while growing up, as well as community gatherings where many schools came together as one.
“All the experiences and moments play a part in forming you,” Andrews said.
Tuesday is believed to be the first time that the archbishop has traveled outside of Omaha to celebrate Mass during Catholic Schools Week. The Omaha archdiocese covers 23 counties and has more than 230,000 Catholics, mostly in Northeast Nebraska.
Jeff Bellar, principal at Norfolk Catholic High School, said,“We decided to try and do something for the schools that are outside of the metro and that kind of sprung the idea.”
Dr. Michael Ashton, superintendent of the Catholic schools in the archdiocese, agreed with the plan.
Then it all came down to logistics. That included celebrating Mass with Lucas and 15 priests representing the schools, arranging transportation, preparing 300 sack lunches and getting some praise time and small group discussions for the students later in the day.
Danny Leger of Omaha, who played guitar and sang vocals, along with Tom Theis of Ainsworth on percussion, led the students in song and praise. They led what could be described as a min-retreat.
“We had a lot of behind-the-scenes help with teachers and students,” Bellar said.
The Norfolk Catholic theology teachers came up with 26 upperclassmen to lead as team leaders for the eighth-graders and sixth-graders in small group discussions.
The students were mixed with students from other schools so they could make new friends.
Lucas said he is pleased with all the people who make sacrifices so that students can attend Catholic schools.
“I was very excited when I heard this event was being planned in Norfolk,” Lucas said. “We’re glad the weather cooperated and lots of people worked hard to make it happen.”