Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a best-selling poet and peace advocate who died in 2004 at the age of 13, was recalled during a Sept. 21 Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., as an example of how young people can work for peace. The Mass was live streamed for the Sacred Heart School community due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

“This young boy had a had a tremendous message of peace and unity,” said Capuchin Franciscan Father Emilio Aguero, pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. “Students here at Sacred Heart (School) began to learn about this amazing young man. Through his example, through his testimony, we hope to begin this school year looking for peace, working for peace, praying for peace.”

The Mass – celebrated on the Feast of St. Matthew which is also the International Day of Peace as proclaimed by the United Nations – was not only offered to remember Stepanek, but also to inaugurate the new school year at Sacred Heart School. St. Matthew was Stepanek's patron saint.

Mattie J.T. Stepanek (Photo courtesy of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Guild)

Stepanek, a devout Catholic, was born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and lived in Rockville, Maryland. He suffered from dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a rare genetic disorder that not only killed Stepanek, but also claimed the lives of his three older siblings. Despite his illness and his young age, he published seven best-selling books of poetry and essays. He was also a noted motivational speaker and advocate for works of peace.

“People loved him (Stepanek) because he loved so many. He loved in a simple and poetic way and spoke about peace,” Father Aguero said. “Mattie placed his whole life in the hands of God, and that is part of the key why he was such a messenger of peace.”

The priest urged students to follow the example of Stepanek and “place our trust in God, and trust in our parents and trust in our teachers.” He said that “Mattie placed his life in the hands of God, and we must place our lives in the hands of God.”

Urging students to accept “Jesus’s invitation to a life of conversion,” Father Aguero pointed out that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine measures in effect, “we are living though a type of conversion because we do not know what God is going to ask of us, our families, our friendships.”

He said the uncertainty of this time could lead to “establishing meaningful friendships and deep friendships with people who can help us see the world in a different way or see the same world in a more profound way.”

Sacred Heart School’s relationship with Stepanek began in January, when Stepanek’s mother, Jeni Stepanek, addressed the student body, sharing stories about her son and his work for peace.

“God often places people in our lives when we need them most,” said Elise Heil, principal of Sacred Heart School. “I wanted the children to know about Mattie Stepanek because Mattie is a perfect example of what can happen when we know Christ in our lives.”

The school, in response to that presentation by Stepanek’s mother, began an art project – “Palomas de la Paz” (“Birds of Peace”) – where students painted more than 400 doves that were then combined and displayed in the school.

After the Sept. 21 Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., honoring the late teen poet Mattie Stepanek and his work for peace, Sacred Heart School teachers hold “Birds of Peace” -- doves that were painted by students there as a reminder of Stepanek's legacy of praying and working for peace. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Heart School)

“Each student at Sacred Heart painted at least one bird using paint pens and water colors.  Each bird could stand alone as an individual piece of art, just as each child is an individual,” Sacred Heart School art teacher Ellen Lafferty said in a statement. “When their art and messages of peace are linked together, it becomes a unified goal of love and peace. The birds are installed in the [school] stairwell where they fly up the stairwell towards Heaven.”

Father Aguero – who blessed the artwork during the Mass – called the doves “a symbol of handing over our lives to God” and said the images would serve “as a sign of peace and also a sign of conversion, a sign of trust, a sign of hope.”

The art project began before the school had to temporarily close to in-person instruction due to the pandemic. Heil said the “Palomas de la Paz” art project should remind students that “we have to find joy in our own adversity.”

“I hope that our children will look at these birds, remember Mattie’s life and remember Christ’s words that there is joy here,” she said.