Toms River schools celebrate the saints and warm up for Year of Youth

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Eighth graders in St. Joseph School, Toms River, spent their Oct. 12 school day having the opportunity to teach their younger counterparts about being a saint. Mike Ehrmann photos

From the “Quad” in back of Donovan Catholic High School, to the halls of St. Joseph School and the vast church that bears his name, the saints made their presence felt Oct. 12 as more than 1,300 students celebrated a Saint Day/Year of Youth Kick Off.

Their holy presence was impossible to ignore around the Hooper Avenue campus as students, faculty and staff of both schools all wore t-shirts emblazoned on the back with “Why wait to become a saint?” The message had been coined by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., this summer shortly after he declared a Year of Youth that began July 1 and will conclude in June, 2019.

The Toms River events were a warm up for the official launch October 14 with the Year of Youth Fest in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin. That day of fun and faith will begin at 3 p.m. and include Mass with Bishop O’Connell, and a festival bringing together the Diocese’s parish and school communities and a Young Catholics Got Talent event.

The sprawling Toms River campus hummed with activity throughout the day. Among the projects high school students undertook was a canned food drive contest in the quad where classes competed by making “symbols of holiness” spelling out affirming messages such as “love, faith, community,” with their cans.

A photo booth with saintly props served as the staging point for kids to have their picture taken with photos of the seven saints being canonized in Rome on Oct. 14. In the elementary school, the eighth graders dressed as saints, taught classes about their particular saint, conducted interviews as their saints and posed for saintly selfies with the younger students.

A prayer service that began with students holding aloft the large photos of the seven saints to be proclaimed Sunday in Rome, drew the day to a close. During the liturgy, students and faculty members offered their own faith witness and Father G. Scott Shaffer, director of the schools and pastor of St. Joseph Parish, encouraged the young people to take up the challenge of following saintly ways.

Father Shaffer assured the kids who filled the church to capacity that when he was their age, he struggled to “figure out what God wanted me to be. Like you, I questioned, ‘who am I supposed to be?’ Until you allow God to be the model for your life,” he said, the question is hard to answer.

“The Bishop says ‘why wait to be a saint,’” Father Shaffer said, referring to the theme of the day. “That calls me to ask why would I have doubts about that.” He urged them to “start out with something simple, plan things, ask other people what they are doing. It is real simple. Throughout our lives opportunities are there.”

Turning to a basket full of cards on which students had written their “one act of holiness commitment cards” he read some of their pledges which ranged from saying a prayer every night to being a kinder person to “trying my best to be kind of anyone left out or alone.”

“These will all make a difference,” Father Shaffer said. “Don’t let anyone down; be an example. I pray and I hope that you live that way each day boys and girls at St. Joe’s and Donovan Catholic. Keep the bar high and we’ll all be a community of saints.”

Mary Beth DeBlasio, coordinator of campus ministry in Donovan Catholic, said the Saints Day/Year of Youth reflected the goals set by Bishop O’Connell for the Year of Youth to increase active engagement in the faith by young Catholics; helping them grow as missionary disciples, celebrating their gifts and positive Catholic witness.

“The kids really took the bull by the horns with this,” said Mary Jo Delaney, an eighth grade teacher eight grade teacher in St. Joseph Elementary School. She and Jennifer Criscuolo, who also teaches eighth grade, helped steer the events there.

Students at both schools were enthusiastic about the day and The Year of Youth in general.

Sydney Jones and Ava Roblino, eighth graders at St. Joseph School described the day as inspirational. Roblino said she really enjoyed sharing the saint stories and helping with the younger children. Jones, who volunteers with the food pantry at her congregation, Redeemer Lutheran in Manchester Township, said it was “great to see everyone working for a good cause.”

Seniors Jack Rappoccio and Amanda Lonergan said participating in the food drive for St. Joseph’s Pantry was a good experience. Rappoccio, senior class president, and Lonergan who volunteered last in the Philippines with Operation Smile, both said that it was good to have another way to help those in need.

“We feel the need to help,” she said. “And we know that at Donovan, we can help.”

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