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Catholic Schools Week, and a Catholic school’s century

Anytime you turn 100 and more than 1,000 people come to your birthday party, you know you’ve done something right.

Beneath a massive canopy set up on the school’s blacktop next to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., and also in the parish center and school gym, a crowd gathered on Oct. 21, 2023 for Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th Birthday Bash, to celebrate the impact that Catholic elementary school has had on generations of Catholic families in that Chevy Chase neighborhood and throughout the nation’s capital.

 As the 2024 Catholic Schools Week concludes, I’m reminded of what some of the people attending Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th birthday party told me, and how that says everything about their school and about why we have Catholic schools.

The celebration’s printed program noted that Blessed Sacrament School opened its doors in 1923, with six Holy Cross Sisters serving 62 children. Now the school has 500 students and more than 50 people on its staff. The Sisters of the Holy Cross taught at the school from its founding in 1923 until 2015, and a tribute in the program expressed gratitude “for all the 88 Holy Cross Sisters who graced our halls” and for how “their selfless efforts benefited the thousands of children who passed through our doors.”

An endowment fund for the school is named for and honors the legacy of Msgr. Thomas Smyth, the founding pastor at Blessed Sacrament who served there from 1911 until his death in the rectory in 1951.

A vigil Mass that Saturday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament preceded the school’s 100th Birthday Bash and symbolized the close relationship of the neighboring church and school, and how faith is central to the students’ learning there.

In his homily at the Mass, Father Gary Studniewski, Blessed Sacrament’s pastor, said what he loves about Blessed Sacrament School is that it forms children to be “both faithful citizens of our country and committed disciples of Christ, and our world desperately needs both… For 100 years now, Blessed Sacrament School has been forming citizens and disciples in exemplary fashion.”

The priest, who served as a U.S. Army chaplain for 18 years, said that in the military, he noticed that most of the senior leaders whom he met had been educated in Catholic schools, and he said Blessed Sacrament students over the years likewise have been shaped by the academic excellence, the discipline, community service, character formation and the teachings of Christ that are hallmarks of Catholic schools.

Father Studniewski said Blessed Sacrament School has been a “shining star” to generations of families, noting how so many people have told him, “My parents went to Blessed Sacrament, I went to Blessed Sacrament, and my children go to Blessed Sacrament.”

He praised the legacy of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the lay teachers and staff who have served there over the years, and he expressed gratitude to the alumni, parents, volunteers and supporters of the school.

“There really is something special we celebrate tonight,” he said, later adding at the end of Mass that “it is so good we began our gala celebration here in this church.”

Father Gary Studniewski, the pastor of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, D.C., receives offertory gifts during an Oct. 21, 2023 Mass that preceded Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th Birthday Bash. The Catholic elementary school in Washington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood was founded in 1923. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

After Communion, Father Studniewski praised the impact that Father Percival D’Silva has had on the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Blessed Sacrament School since that priest began serving there in 1988.

“When I got here, I learned how much Father D’Silva is loved by parish and school families,” he said, noting how the priest has been a familiar figure in the classrooms and on the playground of Blessed Sacrament School. “He’s formed hearts and nurtured the souls of thousands of school families, and it is only proper that tonight’s gala is dedicated to him.”

Father D’Silva, a native of Bombay, India, received a long ovation from the congregation at the Mass, and a family presented him with gifts -- a 100th anniversary commemorative fleece vest and a commemorative shirt.

“Thank you!,” Father D’Silva said. “I feel so blessed and honored to be in this parish for so many years. You make a small guy feel 10 feet tall.”

After thanking God, the priest expressed gratitude for his parents, noting that of the five boys and five girls in his family, three boys became priests and two of the girls became nuns. One of those brothers, Bishop Allwyn D’Silva, now serves as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Bombay. In 2024, Father D’Silva is marking the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

Before receiving sustained applause and a standing ovation, the humble priest concluded his remarks by saying, “I want to say thank you, this is the best parish in the world.”

Later during the school’s Birthday Bash, Father D’Silva was asked what it has meant to him to teach religion to the students at Blessed Sacrament School and to join them on the playground over the years. “I love them. I can’t do without them,” he said.

At Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th Birthday Bash in October 2023, Elaine Nortz, a third grade teacher at Blessed Sacrament School from 1982 to 2016, visits with Chris Kelly, a graduate of Blessed Sacrament who is in his 16th year as the school’s principal. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Just before the Mass, I interviewed Chris Kelly, a 1975 graduate of Blessed Sacrament School who is now in his 16th year as the principal there. He noted that his mother, Mary Catherine McCarthy (now Frankie Colby) graduated from the school in 1950, and his two children also graduated from Blessed Sacrament School. 

Noting how many multi-generation families have attended the school, and how the school community has offered a haven of support to families facing challenges over the years, Kelly said, “Our sense of community is the biggest piece of who we are and what we do.”

Reflecting on the impact that Blessed Sacrament School had on him as a student, and why he returned to serve as the school’s principal, Kelly said, “For me, it was a foundation I came back to.”

The academic vigor that he experienced at Blessed Sacrament helped him go on to attend Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda and then the University of Virginia, he said, adding that the sense of Christian service that was central to his education at Blessed Sacrament led him to serve at Catholic schools in poor neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., as a teacher at St. Thomas More School and as a teacher and as a principal at the now-closed Assumption School.

Kelly noted how Blessed Sacrament School has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School twice, in 2012 and 2019, and in addition to its academically rigorous education, it also offers a resource program to help students facing learning challenges. Another hallmark of the school is that nearly all of its graduates go on to Catholic high schools.

“We do produce good kids who are service oriented and self-confident enough to take on leadership roles at their schools,” he said.

At the party, Kelly introduced me to Elaine Nortz, a third grade teacher at Blessed Sacrament School for 33 years, from 1982 to 2016. Praising the Catholic identity at the school, she said the faculty there “is ready to do anything for the good of the kids, and the parents are supportive in all we do.”

“Being part of a parish, being part of a parish school is very powerful. You’re right next to a church, and the church and the school become one,” Nortz said.

The retired teacher added, “Now several children I taught are teaching at the school. The children who went to school here come back and still want to be a part of Blessed Sacrament.” The anniversary program noted that now nine full-time faculty members there are graduates of the school.

Nortz said Blessed Sacrament School remembers to support the Sisters of the Holy Cross, and she pointed out how proceeds from the school’s annual Mission Fair have supported the sisters’ ministries, including a school in Africa.

“The legacy of service is something the sisters were very strong on, and the legacy of community. It’s something they brought, and the love of teaching,” Nortz said.

Frankie Colby, Chris Kelly’s mother from Blessed Sacrament’s class of 1950, noted how her sister and brother also attended the school, as did her three children and two of her grandchildren.

“The friends I made here are still my best friends,” she said.

As the party continued, it was noted that the guests included a graduate of Blessed Sacrament School from the class of 1948, 75 years ago.

Tim Warren, a 1997 graduate of Blessed Sacrament School who was among the guests at its 100th Birthday Bash, noted that three generations of his family have attended the school. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Tim Warren, a graduate of the class of 1997 at Blessed Sacrament School who works for a newsletter company, noted that his father Paul Warren, a 1963 graduate, was also attending the birthday gala.

“It taught me several things, mostly how important the Church is (to your life),” Tim Warren said, adding that in addition to making friends there, he learned that “what you do and how you act can impact the world around you.”

The Blessed Sacrament community was a central part of the lives of the school families, said Warren, who also played CYO soccer and basketball there.

Tim Warren pointed out that several of his Blessed Sacrament School classmates now have children attending the school, marking the second or third generations of their families to attend there, and he mentioned another family that has had four generations at Blessed Sacrament School.

“I have three kids now here myself, in kindergarten, second and fourth grade,” Warren said, adding, “I hope to have them feel the same things as I did.”

The program for Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th Birthday Bash also paid tribute to the late Betty Lou McQuade who died in July 2023 and was a longtime teacher there and the parent of three alumni. She was remembered for “being the founder and producer of so many memorable theater productions, that truly made every student a star… As the third grade teacher, she gave everyone who sat in a desk in her classroom the gifts of love, kindness and total acceptance for who they were.”

The guests at Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th anniversary celebration in October 2023 also included brothers Dan and Sean McQuade, alumni of the school whose late mother, Betty Lou McQuade, was a longtime third grade teacher and leader of theater productions there. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Among the guests at the gala were her sons and Blessed Sacrament alumni Sean McQuade, who works in banking, and Dan McQuade, who works in cyber security.

“She was an icon here,” said Sean McQuade, who attended Blessed Sacrament from kindergarten through fifth grade, while his brother Dan was there from kindergarten through the eighth grade. Dan added that their mom “was so dedicated to the kids she taught.”

Erin Granfield, a graduate of Blessed Sacrament School who over the years has sung in Broadway musicals and continues to sing as a cantor at Masses at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, sang at the school’s 100th birthday celebration in October 2023, performing songs from theater productions led over the years by the late Betty Lou McQuade, a longtime teacher there. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Paying tribute to Betty Lou McQuade in a special way at the party was Erin Granfield, a graduate of Blessed Sacrament School who has performed in musicals on Broadway and in the Washington area. At the 100th Birthday Bash, Granfield sang songs from shows that Betty Lou McQuade produced and directed at Blessed Sacrament School, including “Lullaby of Broadway” from the musical 42nd Street.

Granfield, who shares her singing talent as a cantor at Masses at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, told me about her special connection to the parish and school. “My father died when I was seven. We had just moved to D.C.,” said Granfield, who noted that after that difficult experience, she began attending Blessed Sacrament School as a second grader. “The school was so welcoming and supportive. The community just came together.”

The Broadway singer, who graduated from Blessed Sacrament as an eighth grader, said, “The whole time I felt nurtured by the school. It was like my extended family.” She added that the church and school were like “my home away from home.”

Susan Ugast Coneys and Maria Otero, friends and classmates from the class of 1964 at Blessed Sacrament School, were among the guests at the school’s 100th Birthday Bash in October 2023. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Blessed Sacrament School’s 100th Birthday Bash also offered a time for lifelong friends to visit with one another, like Susan Ugast Coneys and Maria Otero, friends and classmates from the class of 1964 there who sat at a table together in the parish center that was filled with guests enjoying the dinner.

“For me, it was such a family school,” said Susan Ugast Coneys, noting that many families lived in the Chevy Chase neighborhood surrounding the school and church. “I could walk, everybody could walk,” she added.

Maria Otero, who also walked to Blessed Sacrament School, noted, “The parish and the school were at the center of our lives. Many of us were from large families. I’m one of nine. Our parents were devout Catholics.”

Otero, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, began attending Blessed Sacrament School as a sixth grader. “I was the only Latina,” she said, noting that she had to learn English after her family moved to the Washington area. “There were some absolutely wonderful nuns (here).”

Over the years, Susan Ugast Coneys worked as a travel agent and raised a family, and she moved back to the Washington area six years ago, noting that it was special for her to reconnect with her Blessed Sacrament School friends.

That point was echoed by Maria Otero, who formerly worked in international development and as an Under Secretary of State in the State Department. “I’m always running into someone from Blessed Sacrament,” she said.

As Blessed Sacrament School marks its 100th anniversary in the 2023-24 school year, those ties of faith and community and shared educational experiences continue to bind its generations of families and friends, and the generations of families to come.

(Mark Zimmermann is the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.)