Students at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring gathered with Franciscan priests from throughout the Archdiocese of Washington on Oct. 4 to celebrate the feast day of their patron, St. Francis of Assisi, with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Tobias Harkleroad, the school’s principal, opened the Mass by telling the students that they are celebrating “the saint whose life and teaching guide us in the path of Jesus.”

“His example is one for all of us, not just people wearing brown,” said Harkleroad, referring to the traditional brown vestments worn by Franciscans.

St. Francis of Assisi lived in 13th century Italy, and is known for giving up a life of wealth to serve and live alongside the poor. After being canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1228, he became the patron saint of animals and the natural environment because of how much time he spent in nature.

Relics from the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare, one of his closest friends and followers, were present at the school’s Mass “to remind us the saints are all around us,” said Harkleroad. 

One of the things that everyone could learn from St. Francis is, “you have to come to know Jesus not just in your mind, you have to know him in your heart,” said Cardinal Wuerl in his homily, adding that this is why it is important for people to pray.

Another thing the students could learn from St. Francis, the cardinal said, is “The important thing in life is not just to have stuff. The important thing in life is to come to know and love and walk with Jesus.”

The cardinal challenged the students to try to get a little closer to Jesus every day, by taking a moment to say something to Him and then listening for Him to speak to their heart.

“Prayer is simply finding the time to talk to Jesus and allowing ourselves to be quiet enough to hear Him speaking to us,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Behind the altar in the sanctuary of St. Camillus Catholic Church, where the Mass was held, a mural hung with St. Francis in the center, surrounded by children of different ethnicities, with one of them holding the globe he is traditionally depicted with. A Franciscan volunteer who served at the school painted that centerpiece, and around it students drew words in different languages from the prayer of St. Francis. The artwork will soon be hung on the fence across from the entrance to the school.

Harkleroad promised to give the cardinal a smaller replica of the artwork, and also gifted him the Tau Cross that sat on the altar during the Mass. This cross was the symbol that St. Francis used as his signature, and is a part of the school’s logo. Harkleroad said the students wear it on their uniforms “to remind them to be like Francis and to be Christ to the world.”

St. Francis International School is in its eighth year of operation, and following the Mass, Tom Burnford, the current president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association, recalled the initial meeting that got it all started.

At the time, Burnford was the Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Washington, and Harkleroad came to meet with him along with Franciscan Father Mike Johnson, who was then the pastor of St. Camillus; Father John Dillon, the former pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville; and Matt Russell, who was the principal at St. Mark’s School. The group presented Burnford with a proposal for a new school and collaborated to make it happen.

Burnford said the school leaders displayed “tremendous initiative to create something new to better serve parishes.” Today, St. Francis International School is supported by St. Camillus, St. Mark the Evangelist, St. Catherine Labouré in Wheaton, and Our Lady of Vietnam in Silver Spring, and it serves students from about 20 parishes in the archdiocese.

“One of Francis’s big things is he embraced the real,” said Harkleroad. “Francis believed you would find God in the flesh, in reality. Our mission is to find Christ wherever we can find him, and that is on the margins.”

Franciscan Father Chris Posch, the pastor of St. Camillus, goes out into the Langley Park neighborhood and makes personal invitations to families to send their students to the school.  The school currently has more than 400 students from about 50 countries around the globe.

This year, thanks to grants from state and federal governments, the school has begun new technology initiatives, including a one-to-one program, allowing each 5th through 8th grader to be assigned a Chromebook to use for digital learning at school and at home.

Harkleroad said St. Francis International School exists “for every child who needs a place,” whether they are the child of a lawyer and a doctor or the child of recent immigrants struggling to get by. They welcome students of all types “because we see Christ in them,” said Harkleroad, adding that they seek follow the example of St. Francis, who was “an equal opportunity evangelizer.”