Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s first visit to St. Mary’s School of Piscataway in Clinton, Maryland, for a Jan. 14 Mass and then a blessing of the school’s new Media Center marked a time to celebrate the past and future of the parish and school community.

The parish’s name reflects its historic connection to that region’s Piscataway tribe of Native Americans. A large, dramatic painting above the baptistry in the church by artist Henry Wingate depicts the 1640 baptism of Piscataway Tayac (chieftan) Kittamaquund by Jesuit Father Andrew White, the “apostle of Maryland” who celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies in 1634 at St. Clement’s Island. The Prince George’s County parish traces its beginning to 1640, and the painting memorializes that historic baptisms of the Piscataway leader and his family members, which happened not far from the present-day church.

A painting by artist Henry Wingate above the baptistry at St. Mary's Church at Piscataway depicts the 1640 baptism of the Piscataway chieftan by Jesuit Father Andrew White. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Welcoming Archbishop Gregory at the Mass, Father Timothy Baer, the pastor of St. Mary’s of Piscataway, noted “the beautiful painting that greeted you at the center of our baptistry,” and added, “I haven’t trademarked it yet, but we can rightfully call our parish the birthplace of colonial American evangelization.” He noted that the painting’s placement above the baptismal font symbolized the continuity between “our first baptism” and each new baptism at the church, “right up to Logan Chan’s this past Sunday.”

Expressing his joy at making his first visit to the parish, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged the school and parish community gathered together for the Mass, hundreds of people that included students, teachers and faculty, family members and other parishioners.

“We come together as one family, God’s family,” he said as the Mass began.

Seventh and eighth grade students had walked hand-in-hand with pre-K and kindergarten students into the church, and sat beside them during the Mass, helping them follow along with the prayers and songs. Students in the school’s choir led the singing, and other students brought up the offertory gifts and a student lector read the first reading from 1 Samuel.

Seventh and eighth grade students at St. Mary's School of Piscataway arrive for the Jan. 14 Mass, accompanying preK and kindergarten students.

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted how his blessing of the school’s new Media Center after the Mass reflected its bright future. “For more than 300 years, this parish has rejoiced not only in its past, its history, but also in its future,” he said.

After thanking the parents and grandparents at the Mass, Archbishop Gregory told the students that their families’ support for Catholic education “is an investment in your future.”

“We help form you in your faith, we help direct and guide you in your growth in Christ, which becomes part of your parents’ and grandparents’ legacy of faith,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Concluding his homily, Archbishop Gregory smiled and noted the young St. Mary’s School of Piscataway students sitting in the front pews of the church. “The future looks really bright,” he said.

Older students at St. Mary's School of Piscataway assisted younger students in following along with prayers and songs at the Mass. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

As the Mass ended, the St. Mary’s students joined the archbishop in tracing the sign of the cross. Afterward, the school’s nearly 140 students assembled in the school’s hallway, with some students holding a large banner welcoming the archbishop. Then they gathered in the new Media Center, walking beneath a doorway decorated with golden, white and blue balloons, where they joined Archbishop Gregory for the blessing ceremony.

The Media Center opened in January, thanks to a generous contribution from Jeff Kinney, the author of the best-selling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” children’s book series who grew up in the parish, and also thanks to contributions from parishioners and school families who together pledged nearly $1 million for the parish’s 2020 Vision: Called to Holiness Capital Campaign.

That campaign provided funding for the Media Center, the remodeled school library that now features state-of-the-art technology and an expanded selection of books. Donations supported class sets of Chromebooks, Kindle Fires and virtual reality goggles, new educational software, a dry-erase lab table and an automated checkout system.

Lynsie Reavis, who became the new principal of St. Mary’s School of Piscataway during this school year, told the assembled students and guests, “It’s so important to foster a love of reading for all the children and to give them an opportunity to grow in the digital world we live in.”

Later she noted students have used the VR goggles to visually explore Africa and its animals, and discussing the potential of those devices with her, a teacher said students learning about ancient Greece could use them to get a panoramic view of that civilization.

“It brings us into the new millennium and is giving kids what they need” to learn, Reavis said, adding, “I’m a big proponent of having a book in hand and using technology.”

Students demonstrate virtual reality goggles in the new Media Center at St. Mary's School of Piscataway. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

So far the capital campaign has also funded a new heating and cooling system for the school, a new roof for the rectory, and new doors for the chapel.

As the blessing ceremony for the Media Center began, Archbishop Gregory said, “There’s nothing more important I do than to be with my young people and parishioners.”

The archbishop, who sprinkled holy water in the room, prayed that students would grow in knowledge and faith there, guided by their teachers and by the example of Christ the teacher.

“May God bless this new facility and all who will use it,” he said, sprinkling holy water in the room.

Archbishop Gregory blesses the new media center at St. Mary's School of Piscataway. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Then students watched as the archbishop was interviewed by St. Mary’s fifth grader Lauren Sweda for an article in the school newspaper. Asked about his vocation, Archbishop Gregory said he started thinking about being a priest someday when he was a sixth grader attending a Catholic school in Chicago, and he added that the priesthood “has been the best thing in my whole life.”

Responding to a question about what he likes to do for fun, the archbishop said, “I like to try to play golf. I’m terrible, but I never lose hope!” And he added, “I like to listen to music, all kinds, and I like to cook.”

As to what his daily schedule is like, Archbishop Gregory quickly responded, “Crazy!” Then he explained how his days might involve ceremonies, meetings and appointments.  “I don’t have any two days exactly alike,” and he added, “It’s not like I work in a factory. I work in a family.”

Closing his remarks, he told the students, “Young people fill my heart with hope. I think you’re wonderful.”

Afterward, his student interviewer, who had carefully written down the archbishop’s answers, said she especially liked his last comment. “That means he really cares about kids,” she said.

When the ceremony ended, several St. Mary’s students told the Catholic Standard how much they are enjoying their new Media Center.

“It’s more interactive,” said seventh grader Daniella Cabatbat, who served as a lector at the Mass. “There’s so many resources for learning what you’re interested in.”

Eighth grader Safari Edmundson added, “I like how it’s set up, and he (the archbishop) made it holy and blessed it.”

Seventh grader Sydney Mayes noted, “I like the new books best. It gives me the opportunity to read and explore different genres of books.”

And eighth grader Breanna Johnson said she appreciated the opportunity she has to get an education at her Catholic school while learning about her faith. “That’s what being Catholic is all about – sharing God’s grace with others,” she said.

During his welcome to Archbishop Gregory at the Mass, Father Baer also noted the history of St. Mary’s School of Piscataway, which opened in 1961 as a parish school and marks its 60th anniversary next year.

St. Mary’s pastor thanked the archbishop, saying, “As you bless the school’s new Media Center following Mass today, you honor our school’s past and present, and you especially bring hope and a timely dose of encouragement for its future: hope that’s rooted not in bricks and mortar or books and iPads, but in the grace of God and the prayer, hard work and sacrifice of our principal Lynsie Reavis, our staff and faculty and especially our students and their families.”

After the blessing ceremony, the priest stopped by each classroom, encouraging students to remember that day, another special day in the history of that parish and school.