Catholic students gather for fellowship, fun
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
There are 16 Catholic schools in 12 different towns in the Diocese of Salina.
Students and staff from three of them gathered in one place Friday, filling the pews at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Hays to overflowing on the last day of Catholic Schools Week 2014.
Those from St. Mary Grade School in Ellis joined Thomas More Prep-Marian Junior-Senior High School and Holy Family Elementary School in Hays in a mid-morning Mass concelebrated by Bishop Edward Weisenburger and six Hays area priests.
Approximately 1,000 people attended the services in all, including some parents.
A former resident of Hays, Weisenburger attended second grade at St. Joseph Grade School, which now is Holy Family.
"So I'm the only alumnus bishop who can come celebrate with you," he told those in attendance at Mass.
"It's wonderful to see that many young people being educated in the ways of the world and in faith," Weisenburger said later while hanging out at Holy Family for a while after Mass, eating lunch with students and visiting some of the classrooms.
It was the end of a week of celebrating by Catholic schools and Weisenburger. He visited several schools throughout the diocese, which stretches east from Manhattan, west to the Colorado border and north from the Nebraska border.
He said he enjoys going into schools, and Hays students welcomed him with open arms.
Students asked him questions as he sat eating his lunch at a table made more for youngsters than adults.
"There are three questions I get asked the most," Weisenburger told them. " 'How old are you?' 'What's your favorite color?' and 'Do you like being a bishop?' "
Weisenburger took a break between bites to answer all three quite simply.
"Fifty-three, purple and yes."
It was clear to see Weisenburger was enjoying interacting with all ages.
As he went through the lunch line, he informed the cooks he "loved peas," the vegetable of the day and obviously a popular choice for the children as well.
"I ate all my peas," said Kinzie Sunley, a kindergartner at St. Mary, as she ate lunch with TMP junior Jessica Lovewell.
"I ate everything," Sunley added as she showed her clean plate.
"They always bond with each other on this day," Kathy Taylor, principal at TMP, said of the students from the different schools spending time together.
"When they left TMP today, several wanted to take pictures with each other. Actually, they didn't want to leave," Taylor said.
Jim Moeder, principal of St. Mary, agreed.
"When we got back to (Ellis), we talked about the new friendships they had made," he said. "It's nice for them to be able to see other kids who go to Catholic schools and what they do" on a daily basis.
Like the Hays area, there are three Catholic schools in Mitchell County, with St. John's Grade School and junior-senior high school in Beloit, 27 miles from Tipton Catholic High School.
But their enrollment doesn't come close to rivaling Ellis County, where Catholic school enrollment in preschool through 12th grade numbers nearly 865.
"You hear over and over that Catholic schools are closing all over the United States left and right," said Karen Bieker, director of a thriving preschool program at Holy Family, which has a waiting list. "But not in Ellis County. We're bursting at the seams."
For years, Holy Family students have intermingled with the older students from TMP at the two schools, and the past few years, those from St. Mary have joined them.
The start of a junior high program at TMP last year added more than 100 additional students to the mix -- and added to the fun of Catholic Schools Week.
Following Friday's Mass, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students from TMP returned to their school along with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from Holy Family and St. Mary's, while TMP sophomores, juniors and seniors remained at Holy Family for lunch and activities with students in kindergarten through third grades from the two Ellis County Catholic grade schools.
As one of the last groups of students at Holy Family lined up to go to lunch, third-grader Drew Werth approached Bieker excitedly.
"Can we have TMP kids in between all of us (third-graders)?" he asked.
"Well, of course," she answered.
"They love interacting with the old kids," Bieker added. "It gives them something to look forward to, not only for Catholic Schools Week each year, but for when they are older and are ready to go to TMP themselves."