Gymnasium becomes sacred space

For about five minutes on April 24, The Ray DeGreeff Gymnasium at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School sounded like, well, a gymnasium.

Similar to a sporting event, raucous cheering filled the gym as school president Father Kevin Schmittgens welcomed the region's elementary Catholic schools, whose students had taken up residence in the bleachers and floor seating. They whooped, hollered and otherwise celebrated at hearing their school's names.

After recognizing the schools, Father Schmittgens uttered the magic word – prayer.

"We have to settle down a little, OK, as we enter into our time of prayer," he said, then leaving the temporary altar stage and walking up the main aisle.

Almost instantaneously, quiet descended upon the crowd. The students — about 1,700 in all, including 570 Borgia students — transitioned to reverent silence, which was interrupted only by the hum of the overhead HVAC. Moments later, Borgia junior Gracie Huels announced what already was obvious.

"The gym has now been transformed into the house of the Lord," she said.

It remained thus for the next hour with Archbishop Robert J. Carlson celebrating a "very special Mass," as Father Schmittgens called it. In addition to Father Schmittgens, pastors of the parish schools concelebrated, with assistance from Deacons Jim Carter and Stephen Young — also, the principal of St. Gertrude in Krakow.

After Mass, St. Francis Borgia received its annual check — for $130,000 — from the Annual Catholic Appeal, the primary reason for the gathering. But rather than limit the Mass to just the Borgia community, the high school invited 11 partner schools in the Washington Deanery — schools united by Catholic education.

In demonstration of that unity, the students wore matching T-shirts donated by the Knights of Columbus Council 1121 and Father Martin Seisl Vocations Society. In Borgia colors of blue and gold, the T-shirts carried the message, "Catholic Schools. Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed."

Afterwards, Father Schmittgens called the Mass "a wonderful event" and marveled at how the students transformed the gym into sacred space.

"I was up there getting everybody riled up, then I said that it was time for Mass and the whole place got quiet," said Father Schmittgens, who jokingly referred to himself as "the opening act. But it wasn't me. It's the culture we have here and the students who did it. We can have fun and joke around, but when it's time to pray, we can do that as well."

Visiting students overwhelmingly gave the Mass the thumbs up. St. Gertrude sixth grader Andrew Young described the Mass as "cool" and enjoyed "seeing all of those kids in one place," an assessment shared by classmate Justin Mort and St. Gertrude seventh graders Celia Gildehaus and Avery Marquart.

"I loved it," said Gildehaus, whose great-great-grandfather donated the land for St. John the Baptist (Gildehaus) in Villa Ridge. "I've seen the archbishop a couple times for Mass at St. Gertrude, but to see a lot of other schools at Mass ... I really liked that. And I liked how it had nice energy and praise."

Marquart, who also found the Mass "really inspirational," attended Borgia's previous Mass for regional schools about 10 years ago. Borgia senior Emily Reuwer missed that one; she was in public school at the time, but this one made up for it.

"I'm incredibly proud of what Borgia is doing," said Reuwer, who served Mass. "To have this many people at Mass together really shows the unity of the church."

According to Moira Vossbrink, the high school's marketing and admissions director, the region's principals determined "it was time" to have another regional Mass. Vossbrink organized the event, but she had plenty of help. Along with Father Schmittgens and Vossbrink, Borgia student ambassadors welcomed busloads of students to the high school, but didn't stop there. The ambassadors ushered them to the gym, sat with them during Mass, then saw them off after.

Borgia students also set up and broke down, converting the gym to and from sacred space. Video production students live-streamed the event on YouTube. The choir nailed the hymns.

Senior Andrew Simily described singing in the choir as "a lot of fun" and credited the archbishop with having "a wonderful homily."

All in all, the Mass "turned out really well," he said. 

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