Lila Hofmeister, the principal at St. Michael’s School in Ridge, said a new teacher there helped to remind her recently of what’s special about the tight-knit Catholic school community that has provided a faith-filled education to generations of students in St. Mary’s County for more than one century.

“I asked her what she liked best about our school and she said, ‘The children are so kind to each other and play so well together,’ ” said Hofmeister, herself a graduate of St. Michael’s School who has served as principal there for the past 16 years. “...It’s because the children come from a place of kindness and faith, which spills over into our daily existence here.”

Like all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington this fall, St. Michael’s School implemented COVID-19 safety restrictions and followed strict CDC guidelines to open its doors on time and to protect all those in the school. Hofmeister said the 2020-21 school year has been her hardest one yet while serving as principal. Some veteran teachers did not return to school, the suspension of school-wide Masses, and the limitations placed on human contact are just a few of the unfortunate results of the global coronavirus pandemic for Catholic educators.

But for all the challenges the students, faculty and staff faced this year, Hofmeister said the community has joyfully risen to the occasion, often going above and beyond for each other, and all done with smiling faces, albeit mostly unseen behind face masks, she said.

“(There’s still) laughter and smiles,” the principal said. “We can tell when the kids are smiling because we see their eyes... We are truly blessed with our team, lots of energy, and we appreciate being together. The parents are incredibly grateful.”

London Gill, a third grader at St. Michael's School in Ridge, prays during the October 2020 Mass celebrated for the school community at St. Michael’s Church by Cardinal Wilton Gregory. She drew the drawing below for the Catholic Standard's Junior Saint's children's section. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Hofmeister said some of the school’s coronavirus protective measures and modified classroom set-up include: daily temperature checks, desk dividers, increased sanitizing measures, and plastic bins beside desks to keep all students’ belongings in one place. Every morning, students disembark from the school buses or cars, line up, get their temperatures taken, and proceed directly into their classrooms. “Some elements we will keep after COVID,” said Hofmeister, noting the new routines have provided a silver lining of gaining a few more instructional minutes per day.

St. Michael’s School first opened in 1918 in lower St. Mary’s County to provide a Catholic education to those seeking it. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Hartford, Connecticut staffed the school from 1922 until 1999. Located near the southern tip of Southern Maryland, 14 miles south of Naval Air Station Patuxent River and eight miles from Historic St. Mary’s City, the school campus is nestled between the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River and close to fields of farmland where generations of Catholics have lived, worked and raised their families.

“You are now truly in a place that the locals call ‘God’s country.’ With vast fields and majestic waterways, where historic St. Mary’s City, the birthplace of religious freedom and the technology quarter from the Patuxent River Air Base and local innovations meet,” Hofmeister told Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who was the main celebrant of a special Mass at St. Michael Parish on Oct. 9 to give thanks for the fall harvest.

Lila Hofmeister, the principal at St. Michael’s School in Ridge, speaks at the October 2020 Mass. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

During the Mass, Father Peter Giovanoni, pastor of St. Michael’s, the southernmost parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, expressed the community’s gratitude for the cardinal’s visit. “We thank you for visiting us here at the parish that the sun first rises on in our archdiocese, rising on our beautiful weather and the crops that we have been working this week,” he said.

Ronny Contreras-Alvarez, a St. Michael’s student, said the Mass was a special occasion to honor farmers for all the food they provide for the tables of area families.

“We think about how blessed we are to have so many wonderful gifts from God, and we also think about all those who do not have food to eat,” he said. “God designed our earth as part of His great creation. He filled the earth with food to nourish us. He gave us a warm sun, good soil and rain to make our crops grow. These crops feed us and make us grow strong.”

Father Scott Woods, the pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes and St. Cecilia's Parish in St. Mary's City, gives Communion to a St. Michael's student during the October 2020 Mass at the church in Ridge. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

At St. Michael’s School, there are 131 students in grades pre-K through eight and 27 full and part-time staff, among them are several Golden Apple Award-winning teachers honored for their excellence and commitment to Catholic education. Since 2007, the community has raised more than $350,000 annually, totaling $4.9 million, to support the school’s yearly budget in order “to preserve the faith-filled gathering place of love, education and bringing souls to God,” the principal said.

Hofmeister said the school families, parishioners and neighbors are determined and creative in their fundraising efforts year after year to help keep the school’s doors open, enabling St. Michael’s to remain at the heart of the local community.

Raffles, auctions, generous donors and a volunteer-run campus thrift store, open only on weekends with all proceeds going to the school fund, are several ways the budget goals are successfully met each year. “It’s really on a wing and a prayer,” Hofmeister said.

Students from St. Michael's School in Ridge lead prayers during the October 2020 Mass at St. Michael’s Church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

For Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 31-Feb. 6), Hofmeister said the students and staff look forward to celebrating their school community of education and faith. However, this year she said most events will be held virtually, outdoors or socially distant. Activities include a day dedicated to thanking the service workers and clergy of St. Michael’s; a saint/literary character or hero day; bingo; an outdoor obstacle course; and a day to wear an extra curricular team jersey day since fall sports were canceled due to COVID-19.

Reflecting on St. Michael’s School – with all the challenges of meeting annual budgets and this year’s added stress of keeping students and teachers safe in a global pandemic – Hofmeister remains hopeful about the future of Catholic education in St. Mary’s County.

“We are a community of faith, attractive to others who are seeking that which only God provides,” said Hofmeister.

 A student prays during the October 2020 Mass for St. Michael's School in Ridge. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)