Catholic school students get surprise call from Bishop Barron

Last week, local Catholic school students got the surprise of a lifetime.

Over the past few weeks, Sister Mary Louise, religion teacher at Sts. Peter & Paul STEM School has been getting creative and finding different ways to keep her students engaged and help them enjoy distance learning during this quarantine.

After showing the video “Faith and Reason” from Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, she asked her 5th and 6th graders to write down some questions for Bishop Barron in regards to the video, which she would later send to him via email.

“I wanted them not only to learn from what he shared on the video but, perhaps even more importantly, experience a connection with him. It was a risk, since I knew there was a good chance we would not be able to connect. Actually, my hope was really just a written response,” Sister Mary Louise told the Denver Catholic.

A couple of days later, Sister Mary Louise received an email informing her that due to all his responsibilities and lack of time, Bishop Barron would not be able to respond to her student’s questions. She did not want to let her students down, so she waited a few days before passing on the bad news.

In the meantime, a former student, who knew nothing about this, reached out to parishioners and friends of the school to put together a video rosary, interceding for the needs of the school.

It did not take long before God had responded their prayers. A few days after the rosary was completed Sister Mary received a second email from Bishop Barron’s secretary letting her know that he wished to meet her students and set up a Zoom call with them.

On May 19, middle school students at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Wheatridge were given the chance to speak with Bishop Robert Barron via a Zoom call. (Photo by Carol Nesbitt)

“I started to cry when I read the email; I was so touched by his generosity, knowing what this would mean for our children,” she said. “And all I had hoped for was a few typed lines from him! Now we were getting a live video conference!”

On Tuesday, May 19, Bishop Barron met with the students via Zoom. The students logged in from home wearing their formal uniforms for the first time after their last in-person class in March.

“They looked so sharp and their faces glowed! Bishop Barron seemed very relaxed and appeared to genuinely enjoy his time with the children,” Sister Mary Louise said. “The students asked the questions I had selected and then his Excellency opened it to any other questions they had.”

During the video conference, Bishop Barron answered students’ questions about God, prayer, and the relationship between faith and reason. He shared the story of his call to priesthood and gave them advice on how to live well during this pandemic.

“Why do people seek God apart from the Church?” asked one of the students.

“Everybody wants to be happy. What is happiness? … Every single person is seeking God, whether they know it or not… if they’re seeking happiness, which they are, they’re seeking God… Everyone is looking for God,” he replied.

Sts. Peter and Paul principal Sister Faustina and pastor Father Jason Therauf watched the students’ Zoom call with Bishop Barron from a conference room in the school. (Photo by Carol Nesbitt)

To conclude, Bishop Barron gave the students some advice and words of encouragement during this difficult time. He shared that it has been very difficult for him as well, but he has never lost hope. He suggested to them to take advantage of this time to study our faith, pray, and extend love ton others.

“Find things that bring you out of yourself during this time… Don’t despair. Be patient. Study and pray. And then find an opportunity to love,” he concluded.

“I am so very grateful for Bishop Barron’s generosity,” Sister Mary Louise said. “This was a huge gift for my students! I had wanted to expand their worlds and he did much more than I had hoped for.”

COMING UP: Catholic schools emergency relief fund: A ‘game changer’

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Learning in a classroom has its challenges; learning from home, however, is a challenge all its own.

Third grader Emmanuel attends St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood Springs. Since the suspension of in-school learning many weeks ago, he’s been using his mom’s “burner” cell phone to try to access his school assignments. It’s not ideal, but it’s all he had. Emmanuel’s mom, Eladia, shared how getting a computer and internet would impact his education.

Everything would change because right now, on the cell phone, he doesn’t have access to sites that require the internet and can’t read the books on EPIC,” Eladia said. “It will help our family because he will be able to learn more. It will benefit Emmanuel and us, too, to be able to be online with his principal and his teachers.”

Many of our Catholic school families, like Emmanuel’s, were struggling to access their children’s distance learning content, putting the students at real risk of falling behind. Kathleen Peek, a third grade teacher, said, “My students who do not have access to computers at home are not able to view my lesson plans (and therefore complete the lessons), join class Zoom meetings, or turn in completed work.” For other students, the challenge is having only one device in the home when both parents are trying to work from home at the same time several of their children are scheduled for online classes.

“I have students who have not been able to attend Zoom meetings because families are doing their best to work and learn from the same devices. They have lost the opportunity to communicate with their peers in this isolating time,” says fifth grade teacher Sara Guerrieri.

Hard to track progress

For teachers, the challenge is trying to assess how well their students are learning when they don’t have access to technology.

Without access to YouTube videos, online lesson plans on parents’ web, and Google forms for assessment it is difficult to track the learning that is occurring,” says Katie Glennon, a middle school science and math teacher.

Now, however, thanks to the new Catholic Schools Emergency Relief Fund launched by the Office of Catholic Schools and Seeds of Hope, Emmanuel and more than 500 students across our schools now have access to computers, their lessons, and their teachers.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, holds newly purchased computers which made distance learning for the school’s students much more feasible. (Photo provided)

Sara Alkayali, Principal of Frassati Catholic Academy, says they’ve been making it work. “Our administrative assistant has been printing items for our families and coordinating delivery to further assist them, but having their own technology in their homes to attend Zoom meetings and watch video tutorials allows our students to fully access all of the quality learning our teachers are providing.”

A “game changer”

“This is a game changer for our students and their ability to connect with their teachers and classmates; these computers will allow the learning and teaching to continue during this pandemic,” says St. Stephen Principal Glenda Oliver.

In addition to the computers for kids, the Emergency Relief Fund is providing about 50 of our Catholic school teachers the technology they need to better facilitate their distance learning programs, improving their students’ overall engagement.

Donna Bornhoft, principal of St. Mary in Greeley, expressed gratitude that is echoed by all of our principals who received computers for their students in need. “This donation is an amazing help for these families. We are so very grateful for the generosity of the donors.”

Much more than providing devices

The other critical piece of the fundraising effort was to help our Catholic school families — and staff members as well — who have been most impacted by job loss or cutbacks due to business closures, causing real financial hardship. This fund will allow them to apply for emergency tuition assistance or help with registration fees for next year.

Applications for help have started to pour in, with more than 250 requests in only the first two weeks. As the days and weeks go on, that number will likely grow exponentially. The really good news is that the first disbursement of around $110,000 has already gone out to schools to help families.

Hundreds provide helping hand

Jay Clark, Executive Director of Seeds of Hope, the organization that raises scholarship dollars for students in our Catholic schools, says that more than 400 donors came forward to help.

“With just two emails, we raised more than $600,000 and counting to help these students, teachers and families,” Clark said. “To have so many people rally to help Catholic education is another stunning example of the generosity in our community and it is testimony to a belief in what goes on in our schools. Our community continues to shine a bright light and inspire through its actions.”