She wasn’t Catholic when she started going to Catholic school. Now she and five others are.

Emily Maerz was in first grade when she decided that she wanted to be baptized, thus starting her journey into the Catholic Church.

Her grandparents, Sharon and Brad Maerz, have raised Emily beginning at a very young age, and they made the decision to send her to a Catholic school, starting in kindergarten.

“We put her in a Catholic school because we just couldn’t see her in a public school,” Sharon told the Denver Catholic. “We had appointments for several different private schools, but we got to Sts. Peter and Paul and we loved it immediately. We didn’t even go to any others.”

Emily graduated 8th grade at Sts. Peter and Paul earlier this year and will be continuing her Catholic education at Arrupe Jesuit High School this month. It was because of her Catholic education that Emily felt called to enter the Church – and this “yes” to God also helped to convert five others, including her own grandparents.

Even though Emily wasn’t Catholic when she started at Sts. Peter and Paul, she felt so at home in her new school community that she began to seriously consider being baptized along with her fellow students.

“In first grade, I started thinking, ‘I want to be a part of this more.’ I asked my grandparents if I could get baptized,” Emily said in an interview with Seeds of Hope, who provided tuition assistance to Emily’s family.

“The kids welcomed [Emily] with open arms, and she just started flying,” Sharon recalled. “The other kids were getting baptized, and she said she thought she might want to be baptized.”

She and her husband didn’t take issue with it; in fact, it was Emily’s conversion that opened the door to their own.
“After I became Catholic and started talking about it, [my grandparents] wanted to know more,” Emily said. “It got them thinking, and they decided to join.”

Emily’s conversion spurred her grandparents, Sharon and Brad, to enter the Catholic Church soon after she did. (Photo provided)

“She seemed to flourish there, and it was just so good for her,” Sharon said of Emily’s time at Sts. Peter and Paul. “And so we thought, if this is really going to be her path, then we need to look into it and support her. Then we came to believe wholeheartedly in the Catholic [Church] too.”

Brad entered the Church when Emily was in 3rd grade, and Sharon joined two years ago. But it didn’t stop there. As a result of Emily’s conversion and her fervor for sharing the faith, a family friend made the decision to enter the Church, and her aunt and uncle came back to the Church after being away for some time.

“They woke up and realized that this is what they are meant to do, this is the religion they were meant to have,” Emily said. “Seeing […] anyone who has the faith […] is just amazing because you start thinking about it and you start thinking about what you want to believe.”

It was through her time at Sts. Peter and Paul that Emily came to a fuller understanding of her faith and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. After her confirmation in 5th grade, she began taking religion classes, which she said helped to strengthen her new faith and led her to a “self-realization that I am a soldier of God. I am part of his army.

“It’s magnificent realizing that and waking up,” Emily said.

Emily’s grandparents couldn’t be prouder of the young woman Emily has become.

“She’s absolutely a dear at heart. We’ve not had one speck of trouble from her,” Sharon said. “I can’t wait to see what God has in store for her.”

COMING UP: With a little help from Seeds of Hope, student gets Catholic education

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Greg and Bridget Agwu, whose Catholic roots run deep to their native country of Nigeria, immigrated to the United States to better their education. And when their four sons were born in Denver they knew giving them a Catholic education would be their first priority as a family.

They scrimped and saved, seldom ate in restaurants, worked bingo and volunteered at each school when their boys attended Loyola School until it closed in 2009, then Blessed Sacrament and finally Regis Jesuit High School.

The two oldest sons, Nnaoma, 20, and Uche, 18, graduated from Regis Jesuit and Chibueze, 16, and Chidera, 15 resume classes there in the fall. Nnaoma attends Santa Clara University where Uche begins classes in September.

But none of the boys would have been able to attend Catholic schools without tuition assistance from Seeds of Hope, the family says.

“Without Seeds of Hope our sons wouldn’t have been able to get a Catholic education and the moral standards that mean so much to us,” said Greg Agwu. “We did everything we could but without the help, our children would have had to go to public schools.”

Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust began in 1993. The nonprofit provides tuition assistance to working poor families attending 11 Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. Many families face a financial challenge because annual tuition for kindergarten through eighth-grade is about $4,500 per student.

The families all pay what they can and volunteer at the schools for such things as cafeteria clean-up and fundraising events.

“We work closely with each family on how much they can pay and no one gets full coverage,” said Natalie Mesko, executive director. “The parents have ownership and because of that they work closely with their children on their academic progress.”

The commitment from the families includes traveling long distances to get their children to the schools, Mesko said. One school has students from 27 different zip codes, she said.

“A student’s zip code should not define their ability to receive a Catholic education,” Mesko said. “Once they get into a school they find it is a community that cares and they get to know the faculty. We do whatever we can to keep the child in the school.”

Since 1993, the organization has helped more than 14,000 students and raised more than $24 million. The business community has helped through three annual events but the majority of donations come from individuals, Mesko said. She welcomes any future corporate sponsorships and aid from the city’s professional athletes.

“It is wonderful the generosity of Catholics in the pew and non-Catholics who see the value of a Catholic education especially for inner-city kids,” Mesko said. “The beauty of our donors is that they just believe in the mission of a Catholic education. They are not donating to get their name on a building or for front row seats at a concert. They are so humble and want nothing in return.”

The Agwu couple has had ownership in their sons’ education from day one. They were married at Loyola Parish and their sons received the sacraments of baptism, holy Communion and confirmation at the parish. When the school closed, they transferred to Blessed Sacrament where Greg was hired as a math tutor after he was laid off at Denver Health Medical Center, where Bridget works as a nurse.

“As I get older, I see how past things have led to where we are today,” Uche said. “If we didn’t have Seeds of Hope we wouldn’t have been able to attend Loyola or Blessed Sacrament and that helped us to get to Regis. We would not have met all the people who have impacted our lives.”

Seeds of Hope does not provide financial assistance for high school students but the Agwu sons have been able to get scholarships. This summer, Uche had an internship with Kiewit Construction Company through the help of a Regis Jesuit counselor. He learned more about mechanical engineering, which may become his major at Santa Clara.

“Regis was such a great experience not just academically but they prepare us as people to want more spiritually and mentally,” Uche said.