Little Flower School in Bethesda had a dual celebration on Sept. 29 – to commemorate the Oct. 1 feast day of its patron St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, and to mark its achievement as a National Blue Ribbon School.

On that fall morning, the Catholic elementary school’s 256 students, along with their teachers and parents and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters who staff the school and the priests who serve the parish, gathered around the St. Thérèse circle outside the school’s main entrance, which includes their patron saint’s statue, with the trees surrounding it decorated on this day with large blue ribbons. The students all wore small blue ribbons pinned to their uniforms.

“This is truly a team award,” said Msgr. Peter Vaghi, the parish’s pastor, who praised the leadership of Little Flower School’s longtime principal, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Rosemaron Rynn, the hard work of students, the dedication of their teachers, and the support of their parents.

One day earlier, the U.S. Department of Education announced the names of the 342 schools recognized as 2017 National Blue Ribbon Schools for their outstanding academic achievements. Fifty nonpublic schools were among this year’s honorees, including three schools from the Archdiocese of Washington – Little Flower School, St. Peter’s School in Waldorf, and St. John’s School in Hollywood.

Little Flower School also has the distinction of being a two-time winner of the Blue Ribbon School Award. Sister Rosemaron noted that the school’s present eighth graders were pre-kindergarten students, standing in that same circle in 2008 when the school celebrated its first Blue Ribbon Award.

“The journey through the years has been a wonderful one, because the hallmark of Little Flower is community,” said Sister Rosemaron, who is in her 23rd year as the school’s principal.

Other Catholic schools in the archdiocese that have received the Blue Ribbon Award twice over the years include Our Lady of Victory School in Washington, St. Jane de Chantal School in Bethesda, Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, St. Andrew Apostle School in Silver Spring, St. Bernadette School in Silver Spring, Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, and DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville.

“Forty of the 50 nonpublic schools (honored this year) are Catholic schools,” Sister Rosemaron noted. “Little Flower is proud to be part of that elite group, and proud to be part of a Catholic educational system that has made such a contribution to the world.”

Sister Rosemaron emphasized how meaningful it was that the honor had come on the eve of the feast day of the school’s patron, and she added that their ceremony was taking place on the day before the anniversary of St. Thérèse’s death.

The saint, a Carmelite nun who died in her native France at the age of 24 on Sept. 30, 1897, gained renown one year later with the publication of her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.” She was canonized in 1925, and Pope St. John Paul II declared her as a doctor of the Church in 1997.

“She excelled in making the ordinary extraordinary, and that is what we strive to do,” said Sister Rosemaron.

During the ceremony, the school’s teachers held roses – a symbol of the Little Flower and of God’s favor to those who do his work on earth – and they received Blue Ribbon Award pins blessed by the parish’s priests.

“You are the heart and soul of Little Flower,” Sister Rosemaron told them, and then she asked them to continue the school’s traditional rose procession in honor of its patron saint, by walking forward and putting the roses in vases to be placed before a statue of St. Thérèse at the school’s entrance, and by offering prayers in remembrance of all the students, teachers and parents who have been a part of the school community over the years.

Several Little Flower students took turns offering remarks on what made their school special, and how the school community draws inspiration from its patron saint. Seventh grader Dominic DeBritz said, “We also follow the Little Way of St. Thérèse when we use the knowledge we gain at Little Flower to make the world a better place.”

The ceremony began with the school community reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Msgr. Vaghi offered an opening prayer. Dr. Jem Sullivan, the Archdiocese of Washington’s new Secretary for Catholic Education, represented Cardinal Wuerl at the event, and read a letter from him congratulating the school for being named a National Blue Ribbon School for the second time. She later visited classrooms there, greeting students and teachers.

Sullivan, who wore a bright blue blazer and skirt to coincide with the celebration’s theme, noted that Catholic schools have a special vocation as places where students come to know and love Jesus. She offered praise for Sister Rosemaron’s “daily dedication and commitment to ensure Little Flower School is a caring community that promotes spiritual growth and academic excellence.” Sullivan added, “Little Flower is a model for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.”

Wil McBeath, the chair of Little Flower’s School Advisory Board, praised the dedication of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who have staffed the school since it opened in 1953. Parents from the school had a colorful stained glass window honoring the sisters placed near its main entrance last year.

“They live a love of learning, faith in God and service to the community 24 hours a day,” he said. Praising Sister Rosemaron’s example, he said, “She’s changed how I live my life and do my work.”

Later, McBeath –who has had five children attend Little Flower, including two current students – told the Catholic Standard, “It’s more than a school. It’s a community of faith.” The school’s teachers, sisters, priests work with parents to “form an atmosphere in which kids can thrive,” he said.

Also at the ceremony, Christine Zisa from Little Flower’s Home School Association  thanked Sister Rosemaron for her leadership and the love she shows the schoolchildren, and she also thanked teachers for their faith and commitment, and parents for their many hours volunteering and offering homework help and supporting service projects.

Beforehand, Dr. James DeBritz – an orthopedic surgeon who has three children attending Little Flower and a fourth who graduated from there – praised the school’s spirit.

“It’s a very tight community where the kids all know each other. The eighth graders know the kindergartners,” he said, noting that Sister Rosemaron established “buddy groups” pairing older and younger students. The parents likewise get to know each other and become friends, he said.

Noting a key reason why Little Flower was named a Blue Ribbon School, he said, “The test scores are through the roof!”

Dr. DeBritz added, “It’s a parish school. The school community extends into the church.”

That point was echoed later by Msgr. Vaghi, who told the Catholic Standard, “This is not a private school. It’s uniquely a parish school, integral to the parish. We study together, have sports together, pray together, (and) serve those in need together.”

Alex Mays, the vice president of Little Flower’s Home and School Association, has two children attending the school. He became Catholic at this year’s Easter Vigil. “The school community had a huge part in it,” he said. “The community itself is inviting, and they really live the faith.”

Students interviewed after the ceremony also praised the Little Flower School community. Dominic DeBritz, the seventh grader who read one of the tributes to St. Thérèse, spoke about what it’s been like for him to grow up attending Little Flower School. “I went to school (here) since kindergarten, and all my friends go here. It’s a great place,” he said.

Eighth grader Bridget Keon added, “It’s kind of become my home. It’s such a community. All the teachers and students are so amazing here.”

Her classmate Christopher Lafrankie said one of the key things he had learned at the Catholic school is, “God is always there for you.”

Moments earlier, students had unfurled a large banner recognizing Little Flower as a National Blue Ribbon School, and to close the ceremony, they sang the song, “This is the Day that the Lord has Made,” accompanied by a group of students drumming along on overturned orange buckets.

Across from the school’s offices, another banner had been displayed, with colorful cutout handprints showing each child’s name, with an accompanying poster adding, “We all had a hand in this.”