With music blaring, about 160 students from eight Catholic schools in the archdiocese joyfully claimed Courts 2 and 3 of Simon Recreation Center at St. Louis University.
In two lines, the sponsoring Billiken Teacher Corps formed a canopy for the youngsters to come through, skipping and dancing, whooping and hollering in anticipation of the fun times ahead that afternoon — the Catholic School Olympics to kick off Catholic Schools Week Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.
They were similar to athletes at the Winter Olympics beginning Feb. 8 in South Korea, though they represented schools at these Olympics, not countries. They wore school colors and carried posters to identify the schools: St. Louis Catholic Academy, South City Catholic Academy, St. Frances Cabrini and Most Holy Trinity in the City of St. Louis; Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson, Holy Trinity in St. Ann and Little Flower in Richmond Heights for St. Louis County; with St. Joseph of Imperial for Jefferson County.
They even had a faux torch to “light” the way.
After they assembled on the court, Jesuit Father Ronny O’Dwyer, the Billiken teachers’ director, led them in the athlete’s prayer, then officially declared the games as open.
For the next hour-and-a-half, the kids exercised their bodies and minds in challenging physical and mental games and activities. They played ping pong, basketball and futsal (indoor soccer on a basketball court rather than a hockey-size rink), demonstrated creativity with face-painting and challenged each other in chess.
“Our kids love chess,” said Billiken teacher alum Michelle Ehrhard, who teaches fifth grade at Most Holy Trinity. After entering the game room, the fifth graders immediately paired off for chess.
Most Holy Trinity fifth grader Jamari Williams called the game room, in a word, “Awesome!” He needed two words to describe the Catholic School Olympics: “Pretty fun,” he said.
The youngsters also got their Catholic on with Catholic trivia.
“Helps them learn theology a little bit,” said Juan Barzallo, who teaches theology and is in campus ministry at Bishop DuBourg High School in Year 2 as a Billiken teacher.
The kids correctly identified the Sign of the Cross, Jesus turning water into wine, the three Wisemen, the star of Bethlehem and more. They overwhelmingly gave the afternoon the thumbs-up.
Our Lady of Guadalupe third grader Jesus Jimenez answered in the affirmative when asked whether he enjoyed trivia; he nodded in agreement that Billiken teacher Catherine Gilmore had taught him well.
Likewise, Gilmore agreed the Olympics hit the mark with the students.
“The kids are so excited about it,” said Gilmore, who like Barzallo is in the second group of Billiken teachers. “This is only the first (Catholic School Olympics), but I think it’s going to be a great thing.”
Father O’Dwyer and the Billiken teachers conceived the games in a brain-storming session.
“He said, ‘I think we should have a time where Catholic schools can come together to kick off Catholic Schools Week,” Gilmore said. “This is what Catholic schools are all about … encountering each other, faith, community and living the Catholic life.”
As a bonus, the students met and mingled with peers from multiple schools.
“They can see that other kids out there are doing the same thing,” she said.
The purpose of the games was simple: “To get kids together and excited about Catholic Schools Week and to show them they’re part of something greater — the Joy of the Gospel,” Father O’Dwyer said.
Mission accomplished. After the closing ceremonies, the kids were treated to the SLU men’s basketball game at Chaifetz Arena, featuring the Most Holy Trinity students singing and nailing the national anthem. The Billkens also beat Dayton to complete a great day — and start to Catholic Schools Week.
A partnership between St. Louis University and the archdiocesan Catholic Education Office, the Billiken Teacher Corps started in the 2015-16 school year. The two-year program gives graduate students the chance to earn a master’s degree from SLU while gaining practical experience teaching in Catholic schools in the archdiocese. Meanwhile, the archdiocese gets six or seven additional teachers in its schools each year.
The first cohort of Billiken teachers graduated in May; of the six alumni, five teach in the archdiocese; the other teaches in Belize. The second and third cohorts, numbering 13 in all, are in the progam this year, with six to graduate in May; cohort four replaces the in the fall.
The Billiken teachers live in community at St. John the Baptist Parish in south St. Louis; the former convent was renovated just for them. In addition to coursework and teaching, the Billiken teachers make three retreats per year and have weekly spirtitual nights.
For information about the Billiken Teacher Corps, visit www.billikenteachercorps.org. For information about the Catholic Education Office, visit www.archstl.org/education