By Jay Nies
Rain, wind and thunder beat down on the fieldhouse at Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia as the 65 graduating seniors got ready to carry their prayers, dreams and transcripts out into the next phase of their lives.
Like the Class of 2017, the building had weathered worse.
“Throughout our years at Tolton Catholic, we have all grown in so many ways,” stated Rachel Selva, the class’s salutatorian. “We’ve grown in our faith, in our academics, in our capacity to serve other and in our friendships.
“I have seen so many of us grow in our compassion, kindness and our faith in God throughout our years here,” she said.
Time for God
The night before the storm, the graduating seniors gathered to worship God at Mass together as a class.
“This year has been filled with a plethora of successful activities and events ranging from sports to arts to academics,” Serena Berrey reminded her classmates before Mass.
“But no matter how busy things became or how demanding our schedules were, we’ve always come back together in this sacred place to appreciate what separates us from the rest,” she stated.
She said Tolton Catholic “has equipped us with every tool we need to face this world full of negativity, hatred and evil.”
She urged her classmates to continue to make time for God and to trust in Him.
“We must always remember that when we include God in our lives, the happy times are significantly happier, and the sad times are a little less sad,” she said.
Father Michael Coleman, the school’s chaplain, offered the Baccalaureate Mass and preached the homily.
Joining him at the altar of Our Lady of Lourdes Church — which was dedicated the year most of the graduating seniors were born — were Father Christopher Cordes of Our Lady of Lourdes parish; Dominican Fathers Richard Litzau and Joseph Minuth of St. Thomas More Newman Center; and Monsignor Michael T. Flanagan, retired pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish.
Fr. Coleman in his homily urged the soon-to-be graduates to keep “lots of love” in their hearts — for God, for others and for themselves.
“God created every one of you,” the priest reminded them. “He has a plan for your life, and you are so dear to His heart, no matter how many times you mess up — and we all mess up.”
The priest said those who love the Lord tend to see and treat others differently.
“You start to see them through God’s eyes,” he said. “You become more sensitive, more loving, more respectful, more patient, more forgiving.”
Fr. Coleman reminded them that God’s creation is like a great-big puzzle, and each piece is different. No one can take another person’s place in the puzzle.
“Remember that God loves you, and every one of you is of immense importance, and you will make a big difference in the world,” the priest stated.
Honored to serve
The awards ceremony was held right after the Baccalaureate Mass.
Madison Baker was announced as the valedictorian, with the highest overall weighted grade-point average of the class.
Miss Selva, the salutatorian, had the second-highest cumulative GPA.
Cassie Edmiston received the Outstanding Service Award for having spent the most hours doing service in the community.
Emma Baggett, Miss Baker, Miss Edmiston, lzabel Hanson, Austin Luecke, Miss Selva, Blair Widmer, Blair Wooldridge and Lindsey Wright were singled-out for having given over 100 hours of service.
Elizabeth Flippin was honored as a National Merit Scholar finalist.
Luke Campbell and Miss Widmer received the “Play Like a Champion Today Award,” the school’s highest award given to an athlete.
Mr. Luecke and Miss Berrey were elected by their classmates to receive the “Father Mike Coleman Award” for exemplifying the school’s mission.
The faculty elected Miss Berrey to receive the “Father Augustus Tolton Award” for best representing the school’s mission.
The “Bishop John R. Gaydos Award,” for the student receiving the second-most votes from the faculty, went to Miss Widmer.
Tim Scherrer, the school’s dean of academics, described the Class of 2017 as “spear fishers” — acutely focused on pursuing and achieving their goals.
The 65 seniors earned 174 college acceptances and were offered 106 scholarships — 92 academic and 14 athletic — totaling more than $5.25 million.
They were accepted into 61 colleges in 15 states.
They plan to use $1.4 million of that scholarship money to attend colleges in six states, including 26 who plan to attend college close to home.
Thirty-six of the graduating seniors are members of the National Honor Society, exemplifying scholarship, service, leadership and character. Each was given a gold-colored cord to wear with their mortarboard and gown the following evening at graduation.
Principal Bernie Naumann was quick to thank the parents and students for their patience, cooperation and support during his first year on the job.
“We have seen what you can do,” he told the graduating seniors. “We believe in you and we know you can accomplish anything.”
Dream come true
The following evening, students donned their light blue mortarboards and gowns for graduation.
Sister Julie Brandt of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, diocesan associate superintendent of Catholic schools, noted that the work that resulted in the opening of Tolton Catholic in 2011 began in earnest while the graduating seniors were still in pre-school or kindergarten.
“The reason that this school was built was because the diocese and this community desired that young people could learn and grow through their high school years in a faith-based, Catholic school community where the mission of the school encourages the development of the whole person — spirit, heart, mind and body,” she stated.
She said the hopes and dreams that led to the creation of Tolton Catholic are connected to the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church.
“As you go forth, may you take all the gifts you have received and give them back to others through your service, your care and your love for others,” she said.
Miss Baker offered thanks to many for her years at Tolton Catholic: God, the school’s founders and benefactors; teachers, staff, coaches and custodians; family, friends and fellow members of the Class of 2017.
“Thank you for leading us along the way, challenging us and making us great leaders today,” she said. “Without you all, we would not be here today.”
She urged her fellow graduates to make goals for themselves and stay disciplined to achieve them.
“Make time for church, for prayer, for going to the gym, and for coming home every now and then,” she said. “Don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget to thank the people that get you where you are going along the way.”
Mr. Naumann said God had abundantly blessed the graduating seniors with many gifts and talents.
“It is our hope that after these years of preparation, they are ready to go forth and spread the Gospel message wherever their lives lead them,” he said.
Miss Berrey moved to Columbia with her parents last year.
Although it was hard to get uprooted from the home and people she had known, she said she’s now happier than ever.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said. “I think this is really where God called me to be. I’ve really found my niche here.”
She said she’ll miss being able to talk openly about her faith with people she loves and cares about.
“I’m really going to miss praying before class and talking about God and science and things like that, hand-in-hand,” she said.
Tolton Catholic has helped her develop her leadership and public speaking skills.
She’s especially pleased to have learned effective ways of staying in touch with God throughout the day — such as just stopping and saying “Hi, God!” throughout the day.
Mr. Luecke, a resident of Cairo, Mo., and a graduate of St. Pius X School in Moberly, was the first recipient of a scholarship set-up for people in the Randolph County area to go to Tolton Catholic.
He and his sister traveled about 45 minutes to and from school every day.
He’s grateful for the gift of a Catholic high school education.
He said he’ll especially miss the time with his fellow “house” members, including going to Mass together once a week.
He hopes to help create that same kind of tight community in college.
He said Fr. Coleman has been a huge role model for him, first as pastor of St. Pius X, then as chaplain at Tolton Catholic.
Mr. Luecke said Tolton has helped him learn not to judge a book by its cover.
“When I got here, I really started to step outside of my comfort zone and learn how to really know people,” he said.
“God on your side”
Jack Parker said he’ll also miss the tight community among Tolton Catholic students, teachers, administrators and staff.
That helped him learn to be deliberate about having people in his life who have his best interests at heart.
Miss Berrey, Mr. Luecke and Mr. Parker said they intend to stay Catholic and continue putting their faith into practice.
Mr. Parker noted that the Church “has always been about acceptance and loving one another, and I think we need to keep preaching that and showing people what it actually looks like in our lives.”
He believes too many people get caught-up in the pursuit of material things and pleasures.
“I feel like if you have God on your side, if you have people in your family and good friends with good hearts on your side, that’s really all you need.”
Mr. Luecke advised his peers to keep praying and entrusting things to God, especially during turbulent times.
Miss Berrey requested prayers for all the Tolton Catholic graduates to take God with them wherever they go, stay mindful of how big of an impact He has on their lives, and remember to keep praying to Him for guidance.