Catholic high schools work to honor class of 2020 in unique, memorable ways

Shrine Catholic High School senior Claire Cerone, with her parents Sarah and Shane Cerone, received a yard sign and visit from administrators of the Royal Oak school earlier this month as they prepared for graduation. Despite the pandemic’s limitations on social gatherings, schools across the Archdiocese of Detroit are creatively honoring the the class of 2020. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Parades, yard sign deliveries and online commencements make up new traditions for seniors graduating under abnormal circumstances

DETROIT — It’s not the ideal way to honor the class of 2020, but in a season of social distancing, it’s special in its own right.

For Fr. Joe Horn and James Mio, pastor and principal of Shrine High School, rolling up to a senior’s home bearing a yard sign has a personal touch — from a social responsible distance.

The Shrine Knight comes out of their home, decked in college year, greeting the two visitors and snapping a quick photo to post on social media.

“We decided to deliver yard signs to the homes of our graduates, like a lot of schools are doing,” Mio told Detroit Catholic. “So we have support staff like administrators, myself, Fr. Horn, our head of development and college admission directors delivering signs along with caps and gowns. Some students have scholastic award medals that we drop off; the kids are excited to see us.”

Shrine senior Noah Gappy receives graduation package from Fr. Joe Lang as part of the school’s effort to recognize the Class of 2020.  

The visits and photos are a small consolation in what has been a shortened senior year that lacks the usual trappings of graduation season.

Still, Shrine and other Catholic high schools are making the best of it, looking for creative ways to give seniors the normal “commencement experience” in a world where normal is in short supply. 

“The Archdiocese of Detroit has given us the freedom to honor students in creative ways,” Mio said. “Our students were looking forward to a traditional graduation ceremony, but we had to focus on keeping our students safe.”

Shrine is looking to reschedule its baccalaureate Mass for a later date and has been brainstorming other ways to honor the graduating class, such as online commencement ceremonies and social media content to congratulate the 2020 class.

In Waterford, Our Lady of the Lakes School is also delivering yard signs along with banners to the school’s athletic teams, asking students to submit pictures to create a sense of school spirit. 

Decked out in gear from Kalamazoo College, Charlie Mulcahy of Shrine High School poses with his mom, Karen. 

“Our coaches have these banners in the gym for the boys and girls basketball team; each player has a banner with their name and number, so we took those down and delivered them to the players,” said Ashley Sumner, a kindergarten teacher and member of the school’s advancement team. “And the softball coach has been delivering packages of hoodies and sweats to players.”

The school’s graduation day, May 17, included videos from alumni congratulating seniors on finishing their time at Our Lady of the Lakes in the most extraordinary circumstances, creating a sense of camaraderie and engaging seniors with the alumni community. 

“We are a small school, so we are using that to our advantage with our 30 seniors,” Sumner said. “We are spotlighting a different senior each day (on social media) with a Q&A session with information on what teams and clubs they were involved in at the school. Small things like that keep the Lakes tradition alive and well.”

One staple of senior year that can’t be considered small is prom — a rite of passage for many before leaving high school. 

Sr. Lenore Pochelski, IHM, head of school for Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, offers a rose to a senior during a curbside farewell at the school. (Courtesy of Marian High School)

For its part, St. Mary Catholic Central High School in Monroe is still holding out hope for an in-person dance, tentatively to take place this summer.

“We’re working to reschedule prom for Wednesday, July 22, all things considered, depending on what happens with future stay-at-home orders,” said Jeff Goda, director of marketing for the school. “We are planning on the same facility, the Orlando pavilion facility in Riverview, but all of this is tentative, based on social distancing guidelines being lifted.”

St. Mary Catholic Central hosted an online commencement and baccalaureate Mass on May 17, but it also hopes to still hold an in-person commencement on July 26 — either in the school’s gymnasium or in its traditional location, the chapel of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary motherhouse in Monroe — along with its annual alumni/senior breakfast.

“We want to honor and celebrate these seniors and all of their achievements like we would any other class,” Goda said. “The situation is different, but that doesn’t mean we want to just ignore their achievements or the opportunity to celebrate them.”

Faith Luddy, Shrine High School registrar, and Amy Piazzon, college and career counselor, hold up Shrine Class of 2020 signs to congratulate the senior class on May 8, parents and administrators at Shrine High School cheered seniors during a brief “parade” down Woodward Avenue, one final trip down memory lane for the seniors who graduated this spring.

Regardless of the circumstances, administrators hope the small gestures instill a greater lesson that seniors can take with them from their Catholic school careers out into the world.

Shrine students had one final chance to gather May 8, with a ride down Woodward Avenue from the school’s 13 Mile Road location to the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica on 12 Mile. The Royal Oak Police Department provided an escort and parents made signs congratulating the seniors — a new tradition in a year seemingly bereft of it. 

“We can be limited by what is put in front of our lives, but there are two ways of looking at it,” Mio said. “There is one way that says, ‘This is ruining what I thought I was going to get.’ Or you can find the positive in every situation in life. I think if our young people learn this, we can choose for the world to be a better place that is filled with kindness and love for others.”