School scholarships continue legacies, support Catholic education

Denver Catholic Staff

With school back in session, Catholic schools are beginning to grant scholarships and provide tuition assistance for well-deserved students enrolled in the upcoming school year.

St. Vincent de Paul School is just one example. In the spring, staff and parents from the Denver Catholic school will select fourth graders going into fifth grade who will receive the McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund, established by Montgomery and Andrea Sykora through The Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado.

The memory of the spirited and loving young McKaila, who bravely fought a neurological condition that caused tumors, lives on in the scholarship fund that gives young students tuition assistance.

“I remember McKaila when she was here,” said Suzanne Meyer of St. Vincent de Paul. “She was just so full of life — she touched everyone’s lives. She passed away when she was nine (in 2006). This scholarship is a nice memorial for McKaila.”

Donations to the scholarship fund greatly help current students, Meyer said, who exemplify the same great qualities as McKaila.

Jean Finegan, Gift Planning Officer for The Catholic Foundation, said anyone may give to the scholarship funds held at the Foundation either through a current gift or planned gift.  This allows for these funds to grow and continue providing tuition assistance for generations to come.

Assistance is offered for hard-working families in need at other schools, including St. Catherine of Siena School. The Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund was established by Gwen and Andrew Pomper to help children obtain an education grounded in the Catholic faith.  Giordano was an immigration attorney and active fundraiser for the parish and school before she passed away in 2013. The scholarship fund continues to honor and remember her and her contributions to the community by making a Catholic education more accessible for families.

The Catholic Foundation also holds scholarship funds for families sending their children to Bishop Machebeuf High School. The late Elinor Travis had faith that students at the school could achieve their dreams. She aimed to help them get there by establishing an endowment fund to provide tuition assistance. She named the William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Endowment Fund Memorial Scholarship in memory of her daughter, who attended Machebeuf, specifically to help the 65 percent of students from low-income families in need of financial aid.

“Elinor always valued education,” said her friend, Pat Brewster. “I think she had a passion for people and passion for life, and she was very generous with her money.”

Also benefiting Machebeuf students is the Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship fund, named after the Sister of Loretto, founding principal of the school and later chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver. She passed away in 2012. Continued support for students can also be made through the Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship.

High school students at Holy Family may also be aided by the school scholarship fund designed for tuition assistance at the Broomfield school. The Catholic Foundation accepts donations to this fund, established by Deacon Jim and Karen Doyle, to help students in need of tuition assistance.

Catholic education can also be supported through the Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund, established by Don Jung in memory of his late wife. Jung is an active member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lafayette and offers the scholarship for students who are parishioners at the church and interested in attending a trade school.

The Annunciation School community won’t forget Sister Jean Panisko, S.C.L., who served as principal for 29 years at the school before retiring in 2010. Martha Diss Sundby started the fund in honor of sister in order to provide tuition assistance to families at Annunciation Elementary School.

Scholarship funds that further Catholic education held at The Catholic Foundation:

  • Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship -Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund – St. Catherine of Siena School
  • Holy Family High School Scholarship Fund
  • Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund – Immaculate Conception Parish
  • McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund – St. Vincent de Paul School
  • Saint Clare Christian Education Endowment Fund
  • Sister Jean Panisko S.C.L. Fund – Annunciation School
  • Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship Fund – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Memorial Scholarship – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • St. Joseph Scholarship Fund – Supporting the high schools within the Archdiocese of Denver
  • Elmer Von Feldt Scholarship Fund – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

To make a donation to the Foundation in further support of Catholic education for young students in need, contact Jean Finegan at (303) 867-0613 or jfinegan@thecatholicfoundation.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.”