Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated a Jan. 28 Catholic Schools Week Mass at Mother Catherine Academy in Mechanicsville, Maryland, and urged the students there to be like St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast was being observed that day.

"He (St. Thomas Aquinas) went to school just like you. He studied Scripture just like you, and he prayed and drew close to God just like we hope you do," Archbishop Gregory told the students at the Southern Maryland school.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Dominican priest, philosopher and is considered one of the Catholic Church's most distinguished thinkers and theologians. He is honored as a Doctor of the Church.

"St. Thomas was very holy and very smart. He grew in holiness by listening, reading and praying," Archbishop Gregory said. "He had the Word of God and no other textbook. By reading it, studying it and believing it, he became one holy smart man.”

Students at Mother Catherine Academy help lead the singing at the Jan. 28 Catholic Schools Week Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Making his first visit to the school, the archbishop told the students, faculty and parents who gathered in the school gymnasium for the Mass that having a Catholic education "is a way of being a family to one another.”

"A very important part of our Catholic schools is you become one family with each other," Archbishop Gregory said. "Catholic schools help students, parents and faculty realize it is in God's great design that we all live as one great family.”

During the Mass, the archbishop also asked the students "to pray about, think about and consider" a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

"We need smart, holy priests and religious," the prelate said. "A vocation starts as a thought and turns around in our hearts until the very idea of it makes us happy.”

Students kneel in prayer at Archbishop Gregory's Jan. 28 Catholic Schools Week Mass at Mother Catherine Academy in Mechanicsville, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Speaking to the faculty, parents and grandparents who gathered for the Mass, Archbishop Gregory said his message was not just for the students. "Be holy, loving and generous Catholics, because we need both the little kind and the big kind," he told the adults.

Prior to and after Mass, Archbishop Gregory greeted students and faculty from various classes at the school.

Mother Catherine Academy was formerly Mother Catherine Spalding Catholic School, and was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington. Five years ago as it was facing dwindling enrollment and financial difficulties, it became an independent Catholic school and changed its name.

"The school is an exciting model for a new way forward for schools," said Jerry Spence, president of the Mother Catherine Academy Board of Trustees. "We are growing in enrollment year after year." 

The school, with about 170 students, is a regional school that draws students from five nearby parishes: Sacred Heart Parish in Bushwood, Holy Angels Parish in Avenue, St. Joseph Parish in Morganza, Immaculate Conception Parish in Mechanicsville and Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico.

"We have a three-legged approach where we see the parishes, families and school working together to keep children stable," Spence said. "We see our success in our successful students.”

Archbishop Gregory greets students during his Jan. 28 visit to Mother Catherine Academy in Mechanicsville, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The school is named after Mother Catherine Spalding, a Charles County native who founded the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, the order that established the school. While the order no longer staffs the school, the sisters and the school still maintain a relationship.

This past September, members of the school's Girl Scout troop traveled to Nazareth, Kentucky, to meet with the sisters and bring items for the Sisters of Charity museum.

"We have a covenant relationship with the sisters -- they support us and we support them," explained Anthony Wojt, principal of Mother Catherine Academy. 

After noting the Catholic school’s historic legacy with that religious community, the principal spoke about its importance for the Church, now and in the future, "We agree that children need a Catholic education so that we will have leaders in our community and in our Church who have the values we instilled in them."