Niagara charts 150 years of Catholic education

By  Joe Barkovich, Catholic Register Special
  • November 9, 2007
{mosimage}NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - Niagara Catholic School Board, celebrating a “rich history,” acknowledged its roots and symbolically steered a course for years ahead with a gala anniversary dinner Oct. 24 in Niagara Falls.

The school jurisdiction is marking “150-plus years” of Catholic education in the Niagara area, said director of education Angelo DiIanni.

More than 700 people, including board staff, teachers, school council representatives, students, women religious and special guests, attended the sold-out dinner and “many more” had to be turned away, according to chair of the board John Belcastro.

The board has 25,000 students attending 53 elementary and eight secondary schools, Belcastro said.

It grew from “humble beginnings,” said Belcastro, a former principal at Welland’s Notre Dame College School and now the board’s Welland trustee.

Catholic education traces its start to 1857 when St. Nicholas School, the first Catholic public school, was built by a predecessor Catholic board in St. Catharines, he said. The four-room school had about 100 students. It was built to provide education for children of Irish immigrants who were moving into the area. An addition was put on in 1887. In 1956, a new school was built on an adjacent site. The original building, still in use, marked 150 years of Catholic education in May.

The anniversary dinner was in part a talent showcase for the board’s students. It started with an art show displaying mural art done by students at all the board’s schools. The murals will be kept on display during a special exhibit during November. They depict chapters in each school’s history.

A special 150th anniversary boat was assembled during the dinner. The boat was  “launched” in May when about 3,000 staff and students attended a system-wide Faith Day. It was carried into the banquet hall piece by piece by teams of students from elementary schools and assembled in front of the gathering.

Symbolic of the journey into the future of Catholic education in Niagara, it was constructed by students Kyle Wegelin and Mark Giancola and construction technology teacher Mike Smrek of St. Paul High School, Niagara Falls.

“These sails not only chart the past of Catholic education in Niagara but we pray that the Lord our God also uses these sails to propel Catholic education into the future,” said Khayyam Syne, the board’s administrator of staff development and master of ceremonies for the dinner.

A time capsule was made to preserve keepsakes of Catholic heritage for years ahead. Items that were placed into it include: a Bible, diocesan pin and Loretto crucifix, 150th anniversary t-shirt and flag, annual report and budget, EQAQ test results and a symbolic Niagara Catholic Education Award of Distinction. The time capsule will be on display in the school board’s administration centre in Welland.

High school choirs presented live performances during the anniversary dinner. The finale to the evening was a performance by the combined 370-voice choir.

In a letter written for the 150th anniversary, DiIanni noted: “Catholic education is a distinct faith-based system whose educational purpose is not only the transmission of knowledge but more importantly the formation of the whole person. Our graduates, as a result, can better contribute to the transformation of the world in the image of God and our Saviour.”  

Even a special grace was written for the anniversary. Read by St. Catharines Bishop James Wingle, the prayer’s first verse was:

“150 thank yous  and 150 cheers:

for 150 graduations over 150 years!

Before we were a nation,

Catholic education was in place

So to mark this celebration

We make our thank yous  part of grace.”

(Barkovich is a freelance writer in Welland, Ont.)

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