St. Nazianz community celebrates legacy of Catholic school education

Mass, reception mark closing of St. Gregory Catholic School

NAZIANZ — A bittersweet celebration on Saturday, June 16, marked the end of 134 years of Catholic school education in this Manitowoc County village. Bishop David Ricken joined members of St. Gregory Parish, including faculty, alumni, students and parents from St. Gregory School, for Mass. A reception and meal followed in the school cafeteria, with photos and other memorabilia from the school community on display.

Bishop David Ricken receives the eucharistic gifts from Sydney Pitz and Wyatt Fendrick, both 8, during Mass at St. Gregory Church June 16. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Joining Bishop Ricken for the liturgy were Salvatorian Fr. Patrick Nelson, pastor, and Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis of Holy Resurrection Monastery, located near St. Gregory Church. Guests included several Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, the religious community with strong ties to St. Nazianz and St. Gregory School, and members of the Diocese of Green Bay’s Department of Education.

In his homily, Bishop Ricken recognized the service St. Gregory School has provided the community for so many years.

“We are here to celebrate 134 years of Catholic school in this community,” he said. “I know that the principal, Rita Steffen, the teachers and so many parents worked so hard to see if we could help this school survive.”

While their efforts to recruit additional students to keep the school afloat were unsuccessful, Bishop Ricken said he still wanted to acknowledge “the hard work that all of you have done. You have been so, so generous. I really thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

He said that families still have the option to send their children to Catholic schools in Manitowoc County, including Divine Savior School in Kiel, located about seven miles from St. Nazianz. “It’s not that Catholic schools are disappearing from our diocese,” he said. “They are just a little farther away.”

Bishop Ricken shared with the assembly his experience as bishop in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., where families in Lander sent their children to a Catholic school in Riverton. “That’s 25 miles just to get a good Catholic school education,” he said. “Then … parents decided to get a van. They paid for it themselves to take the children to school. Then they moved to a bus.”

The same can happen in St. Nazianz, he said, but families must be willing to make similar sacrifices.

Bishop Ricken also spoke about sacrifices made by families to promote vocations that allow parishes to thrive. He said that there is not a shortage of vocations, but “a shortage of people saying yes to vocations.”

“It is the responsibility of all of our faith communities to raise up vocations,” he said.

Although St. Gregory School is closing, said Bishop Ricken, “it doesn’t mean that the faith should not go on and continue to be passed on.”

“In our diocese we are on a journey called Disciples on the Way. We are going to revivify our parishes and our entire diocesan community,” he said.

Reflecting on the day’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, focusing on the parable of the mustard seed, Bishop Ricken said that, like a mustard seed, faith communities can be transformed when they embrace missionary discipleship.

He then opened a pouch containing mustard seeds and held one between his thumb and index finger. “This is a mustard seed. … Jesus said if you have the faith of a mustard seed, your community can be transformed. You can have the faith to move mountains,” said Bishop Ricken. “Brothers and sisters, it’s time to be missionaries to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means to introduce others to Jesus because we know him and we love him.”

For example, by calling or visiting someone who is sick or homebound and letting them know you are praying for them, he said, “that’s a mustard seed. You might be the only person who calls them.”

Several former St. Gregory students participated in the liturgy as altar servers, gift bearers and lector.

Principal Steffen told The Compass that numerous efforts were made by staff, parents and community members to boost enrollment and keep the school open.

“Unfortunately, without the necessary results, a definitive announcement was made on March 20, 2018, that the school would close at the end of the current year,” said Steffen. “There definitely were feelings of devastation, heartbreak and sadness, but we also knew the hard work that was done for a long time in attempts to grow the school enrollment.”

Steffen said the school’s closing will open doors for other possibilities, particularly with parish ministries.

“As a staff, we are working with families to help with a smooth transition for all our students,” she said. “Approximately half of the students are expected to enroll in Catholic schools in the area.”

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