Stories that must be told Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary Kilar, For the Catholic Herald   
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See the special Catholic Schools Week section in this week's print edition.

It was Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008, a day that would change the lives of so many people, in so many ways. As a principal at a Catholic elementary school, I often find myself at work long after the students have gone home. It's not unusual.

Yet this day was different. I remember the call that came into school just after 6 p.m., "Well, what did you find out?" I asked. I listened -- nothing. No response, only a heavy silence, silence that felt like hours, then tears.

After what seemed like an eternity, a mom's soft voice said, "Mary, it is the worst news ever, Connor has cancer."

The news seemed surreal. Sure kids get sick, but cancer? This couldn't be. It just couldn't be, but it was.

That day I realized how quickly lives can change, and I have come to realize, beyond belief, how quickly it can change a school and community.

As I tried to sort through the millions of thoughts and emotions running through my mind, I thought about Connor's class. Everyone knew Connor was sick, but nobody knew it was this bad. How would they take it? What would they think?

Jumping to action

Without skipping a beat, Connor's fourth grade class jumped to action. They had been praying for Connor ever since he had gotten sick, but this was big. They wanted to pray like never before, but they also wanted to do more. They needed special prayers, to a special saint.

Being blessed with a fantastic fourth grade teacher, truly living the mission and ministry to teach and lead children closer to Jesus, Ms. Schneider and her class began their search. They didn't have to search long. They had heard about Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, how his case for sainthood had been made and all he needed was a miracle to advance his cause for canonization. Could Connor be that miracle? His class thought so, and praying to Father Mazzuchelli became their first task at hand.

And so it came to be that the fourth grade class and our entire school began praying to and researching the life and story of Father Mazzuchelli, who has ties to Sinsinawa Mound and the Dominican Sisters.

Grand plans
 Student support
JEFFERSON — On Friday, Jan. 30, St. John the Baptist School will wrap up Catholic Schools Week with several of the eighth grade boys getting their heads shaved to show their support for Connor, a fourth grade student who is battling brain cancer.
As a result of radiation treatments, Connor has lost his hair, so the eighth grade boys are planning a short presentation for an all-school assembly that afternoon. Prior to this, the boys will visit each classroom to encourage students to think of ways in which they can support them in their special project.
The eighth graders will ask students to set academic goals so they can observe the head shaving event: for example, reading a set number of books or completing a set number of math problems each day

But it doesn't end there. While some would say that prayers were enough, that prayers were all anyone could really do, that was not so for a class of nine-year-olds. Oh no! Those fourth graders had grand plans for helping Connor.

We must take a pilgrimage to the Mound, they said, so that we can pray with the Sisters and the relic chain as a community. We must do this. We must help Connor. Full of determination and faith, the fourth grade class planned a pilgrimage for Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. Eighty-nine school, parish, and community members would attend Mass together at the parish and then head to Sinsinawa Mound to pray for Connor.

The prayers and plans weren't limited to the fourth grade. One of the marks of a Catholic school is that it is animated by a deep sense of community. So it is at our school, St. John the Baptist. The tragedy of Connor's cancer wasn't localized to the fourth grade, it was felt by every teacher and every student in every grade.

Eager to assist, the Student Council, comprised of a classroom representative from first through eighth grade, also made plans to help our dear friend, Connor, with this fight against cancer. Through many discussions, they came up with the idea of a hat day, "Caps for Connor." Student Council would collect donations from students to wear a hat (which is normally against the dress code) and then donate all the money raised to aid cancer research.

Caps for Connor

One mom who thought it was a great idea asked, "How can I help?" Instead of having the kids wear caps from home, why not knit caps? Expanding on this idea, she devised a plan to extend the St. John's community by inviting knitters across the world to join their efforts to knit "Caps for Connor."

The project was received with such enthusiasm that in the end, over 150 hats from all across the world were knitted, donated, and strung up with clothesline from one basketball hoop to the other across the length of the school gymnasium.

Not only did Connor have a cap, but so did each one of his fellow students. As we talked about Connor's fight, not a sound could be heard in that gym. In the midst of our school community, you could feel the true presence of our God among us. One by one, the children were given a hat, each one labeled with the name of the place where it had been made and the name of the person who had made it. Then, all 150 students, staff, and parents rose out of their seats, and we encircled our young friend Connor and we prayed.

As amazing as this is, it was not the only story that day. Another friend, a fourth grade boy named Timmy, was searching St. Vincent DePaul one day, and what should he find, but a picture of Father Mazzuchelli! "I must buy this for Connor," he thought. So he did. With his own money he bought this picture for his friend Connor. With permission from Timmy, I asked if we could re-frame it with mats to allow all of our students to sign the matting. Timmy liked that idea. So, on the "Caps for Connor " day, we presented Connor with a picture of Father Mazzachelli to whom we pray, framed and matted with all of our names and all of our love.

Led to Jesus

I tell these stories as a way of sharing our prayers for Connor and his fight, but also to tell the story of what is RIGHT in Catholic education today. These children are being led to Jesus in such an intimate way, as it is God's plan. They are growing in their faith in such a way that could not be written in textbooks, could not be taught from a standard curriculum. Rather, they are growing closer to Jesus by following a path that is God's plan for all of us.

The outpouring of love and support that Connor's family has received from their faith community is too hard to put into words. The generous gifts are too many to list. He has received post cards from all over the world, gifts, a flag from soldiers in Afghanistan, homemade meals from so many, donations, cards from other Catholic school students within the diocese, a "cap day," a trip to the Mound, quilts, and prayers from all over the world.

Students have realized that through our Catholic faith we are brought together in prayer, in sharing of the most Holy Eucharist, as we truly are One Body in Christ. There is so much "right" in our world, so much "good" in our Catholic community. These are the stories we MUST start to tell.

May God continue to shine His mercy and grace upon us as we join together with Connor in his fight against cancer.

Mary Kilar is the principal at St. John the Baptist School in Jefferson.

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