Community to celebrate Presentation’s legacy

Julie Filby

In its 91-year history, Presentation of Our Lady School has provided a Catholic education for thousands of children. Alumni, former and current staff, students, parents and anyone involved with the school is invited to a reunion May 30 to look back on the legacy of the west Denver school before it closes in June.

“It was fun, like one big family,” Joan Pfenning, 81, told the Denver Catholic. “Everybody knows everybody.”

Pfenning has been a member of Presentation of Our Lady Parish for 52 years and served as the school’s secretary for 20 years. She’s looking forward to the reunion and seeing old friends like “Mrs. Schnur,” who managed the school cafeteria for 27 years; Jeanette Vahling Wacholtz, who attended Presentation herself then had a family member there every year for 63 years straight, and “Andy,” who once babysat one of school’s most beloved alumni, Father Ron Cattany, soon-to-be-installed pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Closure of the school, founded in 1924, was announced by 10-year pastor Father Edward Poehlmann last November following consultation with the parish finance and pastoral councils and the Archdiocese of Denver. Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the space will be leased to Escuela de Guadalupe, an independent Catholic school with a dual-language program, founded in north Denver in 1999.

“We’re very grateful for the alumni,” Father Poehlmann said. “The last 10 years have been difficult for the school and they’ve been very helpful and supportive.”

At its height in the 1960s, Presentation served nearly 500 students in the Barnum neighborhood. In the last decade, more than $3.6 million was invested by Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, The Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado and the archdiocese.

A plan was developed by the Office of Catholic Schools to facilitate the transition of Presentation students and teachers. Of 97 students, more than 60 plan to go to other archdiocesan schools, primarily St. Francis de Sales and St. Bernadette, according to Father Poehlmann. The Presentation community has pledged to help the students with the transition financially, including continuing their annual golf tournament fundraiser, which will be held Aug. 18 at Inverness Golf Course in Englewood. Father Poehlmann also said that all of the teachers have jobs for next year.

The reunion will begin with 4:30 p.m. Mass in the church at 695 Julian St., celebrated by Father Poehlmann, followed by a reception in the school gym at 660 Julian St. Refreshments will be served. There is no charge for the event, though there will be an opportunity to purchase raffle tickets to raise funds for students.

“We’re so anxious to keep the kids leaving Presentation in Catholic schools,” Pfenning said.

“Presentation of Our Lady School has served the community of west Denver well for 90 years, thanks in no small part to the sacrifice and hard work of the Sisters of Mercy,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote in a statement last November when the closure was announced. “The school has struggled in the past few years … but this in no way diminishes the great work it has accomplished in the lives of generations of students.”

Guests are encouraged to show their Panther Pride at the reunion by wearing shirts with school logos. RSVP to Joan Pfenning at 303-936-5934 or Bill Uebelher at mbu11@q.com.

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”