GREEN BAY — Milestones are meant to be celebrated, and that’s just what St. Bernard School did on Oct. 24. For the first time in its 61-year history, the school’s enrollment climbed to 505 this fall. Principal Crystal Blahnik decided to honor the achievement while also thanking the community in an unusual way: a teddy bear toss benefitting seven area agencies serving children in need.
Titled “Celebrate 505” in honor of the K4-eighth grade school’s enrollment, the day began with Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken and Fr. Mark Vander Steeg, pastor of St. Bernard Parish. At the conclusion of Mass, Bishop Ricken blessed 505 stuffed, plushy bears representing the school’s Bernard Bear mascot. Each stuffed bear had a red bandana draped around its neck with the message, “505 Bear Hugs from St. Bernard School.”
During his homily at Mass, Bishop Ricken gave thanks to Blahnik, the St. Bernard staff and others who helped boost the school’s enrollment. He also recognized five Manitowoc Franciscan sisters who were in attendance. They included Srs. Kay Klackner, Anne Marie Selinsky, Jan Villemure, Dorothy Wagner and Camilla Wolfgram. The religious community staffed the school when it opened in 1958.
Bishop Ricken also encouraged the students to form a close relationship with Jesus which would guide them throughout their lives.
“I just want you to know, Jesus loves you. He knows you better than you know yourself,” he said. “You’re never too young to say, ‘Jesus, I would like to ask you to be my best friend.’ Count on his friendship every day of your life.”
As students exited the church following Mass, they received one of the stuffed bears. They walked in procession to the adjacent school gymnasium, which was decorated with signs and balloons celebrating the 505 enrollment theme. The school’s pep band helped make the rally a festive occasion.
Blahnik told The Compass that four years ago, the school’s enrollment was at 407 following a multiple years of decline. “We had an intentional effort to increase our enrollment,” she said. “I don’t think any of us had a specific (enrollment) goal in mind, we just wanted to make sure we turned it around.”
She said the 500 milestone is attributed to parents, faculty and the community.
“Because there has been such a great shared vision with the entire community, I felt it was worth celebrating,” she said. “So we are having a celebration to share our blessings today with the greater Green Bay community.”
Blahnik said the students were especially excited to have the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity on hand for the Mass and celebration.
“They (Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity) are the foundresses of the school, so (students) are super excited to see them here,” she said. “I think that shows the strength of the school, that while we’re growing, while we’re changing, internally, the core is still the same. The core is our faith and that’s important to the kids.”
In addition to the Franciscan sisters, representatives of the Diocese of Green Bay’s Office of Education and the Green Bay Area Catholic Education (GRACE) system were on hand to join the celebration. Also in attendance were representatives of seven local organizations receiving the teddy bears: Aurora Health Care, Willow Tree, Bellin Health Children’s Services, Golden House, Angels by Nature, House of Hope and A&A Alexandrina Center.
As students sat on the gym floor and bleachers, cardboard boxes were placed around the gym. At Blahnik’s signal, students joyously and loudly tossed their bears into the boxes.
“Five hundred and five students in our school is a really deal,” Blahnik told the crowd. “It’s a big deal because each one of you is important to God.”