His penmanship wasn't perfect, but St. Mark School eighth-grader Christian Newcombe's message was on target — "Never lose hope."
Christian wrote the message on one of the cards accompanying 200 gift bags of hygiene products to be donated to clients of St. Patrick Center, a Catholic Charities of St. Louis agency serving people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
"Hope keeps people going ... hope and striving to be a better Christian," he explained about his inspirational message. Another student at his table, Emily Meyers of Holy Cross Academy, wrote a phrase, "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear," and added "praying for you" on the back of the card. They were joined by about 300 students from eight Catholic schools in south and southwest St. Louis County attending a regional Mass, get-together and service project at St. Simon the Apostle Parish.
Each school donated 200 items to highlight the 200th anniversary of Catholic education in St. Louis. The students worked in groups to put together the gift bags. Two Catholic schools couldn't attend after the original meeting date was rescheduled but sent the hygiene items.
Auxiliary Bishop Mark Rivituso celebrated the Mass with several parish pastors from the region concelebrating. He told the students at the start of Mass that they gather to live out God's goodness in their lives and to make a difference in the world. In the homily, Bishop Rivituso urged the students to learn to be kinder to each other. Their role, he said, is to "help our world to be good, a more loving place, a more caring place."
He asked the students to pray with Jesus every day in Lent and "go beyond ourselves to sacrifice for others ... to be more aware of others and reach out."
Jill Burkett, principal of St. Mark School, said that mixing the students from various schools at tables in the parish hall helps them make connections outside their parishes and schools. Making the kits for St. Patrick Center was a way of stressing service, a mission that doesn't end when they go to high school, she said.
Students were asked to introduce themselves; tell where they plan to go to high school and an activity they want to do at that school; and state a fact about their grade school that the other students probably don't know. They then were asked to discuss icebreaker questions such as "Would you rather be stranded alone in a desert or stranded alone in a blizzard?"
Christian's table considered the implications and decided they could persevere in either situation. A cactus in a desert has water and even has an extract that can be used as sunscreen, Christian said. In a blizzard, he added, "you can make snow angels and igloos" and there's plenty of water.
At another table, the students pondered whether they would rather be famous or holy. Charlie Meyer of Holy Cross Academy suggested it's possible to be both. Alannah Coady of St. Francis of Assisi School in Oakville agreed, saying someone can be famous by being holy. Holiness is a concept Lilly Aboussie of St. Mark School said is similar to a root that expands and becomes bigger.
St. Mark eighth-grader Lucy Brann said she enjoyed meeting new people, including some who'll attend Notre Dame High School with her. Also, she said, "just knowing I was helping people in need was a good feeling to have."
Region 5 Catholic schools
Holy Cross Academy
Queen of All Saints
St. Catherine Laboure
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Justin Martyr
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
St. Simon the Apostle