The Avalon School – a Catholic school in Gaithersburg with a coed kindergarten and an all-boys’ first through 12th grade – is steeped in the history of Maryland’s earliest Catholic settlers. Its name is derived from Lord Baltimore’s first colony in the New World, and famous American founders such as the Calvert, Carroll, Stewart and Washington families play an important role in the school’s identity and traditions. During the past several years, however, there is also an ever-growing connection to the Italian homeland of New World explorer and discoverer Christopher Columbus.

Not long after the Gaithersburg all-boys’ Catholic K-12 school first opened its doors in 2003, small groups of high school students from various regions in Italy began attending Avalon for up to one year. Among the seven Italian students spending the 2016-17 school year at Avalon is Filippo Cappiello, a 17-year-old senior and a native of Bologna, Italy.

Cappiello said like many of his fellow-Italians, he was drawn to the year abroad in order to improve his English and perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime chance of an extended visit to the United States.  “Ever since I was a little kid, I was dreaming of the U.S.,” he said. “I always wanted to come here, play basketball and learn the language.”

As he looks back on this past school year, he said those dreams did come true, but along the way, he discovered yet another extraordinary and invaluable experience - the spiritual bond he forged and shared with his fellow-visiting students, his Avalon classmates and teachers through their shared Catholic faith.

“From the very beginning of the year to the last part is completely different. My first days were tough. I didn’t know anyone and was a little bit homesick,” he recalled. “I (later) realized there was a higher purpose in coming here. I’m here because God wanted it.”

In Italy, early on high school students narrow their academic focus on specific fields of study for future careers in science, engineering or the arts. Cappiello said he appreciated the wide-range of senior courses offered at Avalon – English, Apologetics, Calculus, History, Latin and Physics. He said he particularly enjoyed Matt Stroot’s English class in which they studied great works of American literature, such as, “A Lesson Before Dying,” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” One work that especially spoke to him, he said, was “This Boy’s Life,” Tobias Wolff’s memoir of moving from place to place as a teenager and seeking to belong.

Cappiello also credits the Avalon teachers for their dedication, enthusiasm and patience in teaching their subjects.  “They show a lot of passion when they are teaching. They allow you to question and the relationship to their students is more like a friend,” he said.  Unlike in Italy where all the high schools are co-ed, Cappiello said he sees tremendous value in all-boys’ schools like Avalon. “There is a purpose to the school for boys to grow like men,” he said. There are 207 students enrolled at Avalon.

Kevin Davern, The Avalon School’s headmaster, said throughout the years the Italian students bring a certain zest and culture to life at Avalon. He singles out Cappiello, describing him as a bright, eager and faith-filled young man, who didn’t hesitate to dive right into many of the school’s academic, spiritual and extracurricular activities. 

“Filippo was open to the full experience of Avalon,” Davern said. “He took demanding classes, participated in the poetry competitions, Festival Days, sports and the Gala. He really seemed to soak up all of what we have here and we teachers love that.”

Cappiello, the oldest of four children, and his family in Italy are members of Communion and Liberation, an international lay movement in the Catholic Church that began in the 1950s in Italy, with “the purpose of forming its members in Christianity in order to make them coworkers in the Church’s mission in all areas of society,” according to Communion and Liberation’s official website.

During his year at Avalon, Cappiello participated in Communion and Liberation’s Catholic youth group, Gioventu Studentesca (GS) in the Archdiocese of Washington. He said being a part of CL here helped him feel more at home, grow in his prayer life and to better understand that God is always with him and has a plan for his life. “If you believe only in yourself or in your own capacity, it will never make you happy,” he said. “God works through reality. Everything is a grace, and I was never alone.”

As he prepares for his May 26th graduation from Avalon and his return to Italy, where he will complete another year of secondary schooling before going on to study engineering, Cappiello said he is grateful to his host family, Maria Chiara and Rick Kushner and their four children, who attend Avalon and Brookewood, Avalon’s sister school in Kensington. “Now I now have two families,” he said.

At times, Cappiello said he’s felt like a missionary, starting out on a solitary journey, but now ready to return to Italy with fond memories, lifelong friendships and a stronger faith.

“It was more than I imagined. I’ll be sad to leave. I’ll miss (Avalon). I’ll bring it home with me in my bag and think about every time I need it,” he said. “It’s 4,000 miles from here to Italy. Distance doesn’t break anything.”