Sheila Grove

        When the decision was made that schools in Pennsylvania, first closed in mid-March, would remain closed for the academic year, myriad questions arose. How would students who were moving to the next stage of their academic careers be honored? Would there be ceremonies, photos-ops, speeches, well-deserved honors received and witnessed by peers and loved ones?  

        As the school year ends, those questions have been answered thanks to the creativity of educators, the persistence of parents and the enthusiasm of students. At Catholic schools in the Diocese of Erie, baccalaureate Masses and graduations at all levels have taken place.

Outdoor graduations facilitated safe distribution of diplomas,
awards and gifts to graduates, like this one at St. Luke School
in Erie.                                         Contributed photo

 Elementary and middle schools 

         Graduates of the five elementary schools of the Erie Catholic School System were honored during ceremonies held in their school parking lots on June 1. The weather cooperated for outdoor prayer, speeches, diplomas, awards and gift bags, all with safe social distancing. Students and family watched from their decorated vehicles.

         St. Gregory School in North East honored its graduates with yard signs in advance of a private, socially distanced Mass and graduation ceremony on June 2. Mother Teresa Academy in Erie provided the opportunity for students to walk across the stage in the Cathedral Prep auditorium, receive their diplomas and have a photo taken on June 8. 

         Seton Catholic School in Meadville held a small, socially distanced awards and diploma presentation that was livestreamed for viewing by family and friends. Members of the graduating class had previously submitted recordings of themselves singing their class song which were compiled into a choral performance that accompanied their class video. 

         Schools in Elk County, Oil City, Franklin, DuBois and Hermitage honored students with lawn signs, photos and online videos. Elk County Catholic School System, which has elementary schools in Kersey, Ridgway and St. Marys  as well as a middle school in St. Marys, plans live ceremonies later this summer to give students a moment in the limelight.  

         Even preschoolers and kindergarteners received individual attention. An example of the attempt at a personal touch is a video of Father Justin Pino, pastor of St. Leo Parish in Ridgway, offering a personal prayer for each preschooler posted on the school’s Facebook page. 

 Secondary schools 

         Many people expressed their greatest concern for high-school graduates since the pandemic meant long-anticipated end-of-year activities would be significantly curtailed. Educators and parents nonetheless found creative ways that allowed these grads to experience the excitement and honor of commencement and the fanfare they thought they might miss. 

         Each of the seven high schools in the diocese planned a combination of in-person and virtual events to send its students off in style. Bishop Lawrence Persico prepared a video as part of high school graduation ceremonies.  

         Schools made use of Facebook to post senior photos that included after-high-school plans and sometimes props to highlight students as individuals. Signs of congratulations were posted on lawns in many areas of the diocese announcing that a graduating senior “lives here.” 

         Venango Catholic High School seniors had their caps and gowns delivered to their homes by their teachers on May 12. In a party-like atmosphere, students posed with their yard signs. A more traditional safe and socially distant live graduation ceremony is planned for June 25. 

         Kennedy Catholic seniors picked up their caps and gowns, posted their handprints on the remembrance wall and had their photos taken on May 18. Plans are in the works for a live graduation ceremony on June 17.  

         In DuBois, seniors in small groups completed their “senior hall walk through the school heralded by their teachers and used Zoom technology for students and parents to attend an awards ceremony. Their baccalaureate Mass and graduation ceremonies were livestreamed.  

         Elk County Catholic in St. Marys held a virtual ceremony on May 24 that will be followed by a more traditional Mass and commencement event later this summer.  

         Cathedral Preparatory and Villa Maria Academy in Erie filmed graduates walking across their respective auditorium stages and giving commencement speeches, and livestreamed baccalaureate Masses and graduation ceremonies on June 2, 3 and 7 

         Mercyhurst Preparatory in Erie students received their diplomas individually in an outdoor ceremony at the school on June 6. A video of speeches and the presentation of awards was posted on the schools website. 

        Technology has allowed students, families and school personnel to remain socially distant, but emotionally together. While the events were different than what students and families had always expected, they were no less meaningful; now, many will also have videos of these important moments.  

         It does not take much imagination to envision the kind of reminiscing that will take place at class reunions in the years to come. It is likely that students will look back and recognize just how special it was to be in the class of 2020. 

         Watch a video prepared by Bishop Lawrence Persico, in which he extends his congratulations and blessings to high school and elementary graduates.