Schools make King’s dream a reality

Schools make King’s dream a reality

Photos by James A. McBride


The Pen Pals program, a diversity initiative sponsored and piloted by the Diocesan Racial Justice Commission, brought students together of different races and cultures. Although St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart schools are only a few miles apart geographically, they are culturally and ethnically worlds apart. The students of St. Mary’s of Gloucester City are primarily white and Catholic, and the students of Sacred Heart in Camden are primarily black and Latino and a significant number are Protestant.

The idea came about when I was invited by St. Mary’s principal Gail Corey to speak to the students about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the holiday. On that day, I had lunch with Corey and the fifth and sixth grade teachers, Helen Guittar and Mary Kain, and the pen pals idea was developed.

Shortly thereafter, Mary Kain, sixth grade teacher from St. Mary’s and Nancy Donnelly, fifth grade teacher from Sacred Heart, worked with each other to identify pen pals for the fifth and sixth classes in each school. St. Mary’s students were eager to begin the project and wrote to the students of Sacred Heart. About this effort, St. Mary’s student Sean Ward states, “ I really like meeting new people, finding out about them, and realizing we have so much in common.”

After the students exchanged letters, a picnic was set up at Red Bank Battlefield in National Park, where the nearly 100 students got together to meet for the first time. Gillian Sauter of St. Mary’s stated, “We couldn’t wait to get our letters and meet our new friends — a writing experience I will never forget.” Regina Raube added, “My pen pal was even nicer than I thought.”

The day began with prayer, music provided by St. Mary’s music teacher Patricia Davison who played the guitar and student Nick Toppi who played the bongos, and a homily by Father Stephen Chellan. St. Mary’s student Cecilia Wigginton said, “We were all so excited and a little nervous to finally meet our pen pals in person…After Father Steve came and gave a homily, we felt blessed to be together.”

The activities included a scavenger hunt designed for the students to find out information about each other, a relay race where teams combined from each school engaged in friendly competition, small group readings of “The Butter Battle Book” by Dr. Seuss, and free time. Donnelly and the Sacred Heart fifth grade students led the group in a spirited grace rap.

Sacred Heart teacher, Nancy Donnelly said, “The children were all color-blind. Their smiles were genuine, as were their desires for friendship. Anytime we have the opportunity to connect with one another, we can begin to build some bridges.”

In the midst of planning for the picnic, St. Mary’s learned of their school closing. This was devastating news for the community, but I was moved by St. Mary’s deeply rooted faith in God’s call to love one another and its commitment to move forward with this initiative.

Both schools felt the initiative was successful and want to see it continue in the future. St. Mary’s teacher Mary Kain said, “It was a wonderful experience to end our school year…to realize and confirm that we share more in common than the differences we often see first. God blessed us with a beautiful day and an experience that exceeded our expectations.” St. Mary’s teacher Caroline Dougherty added, “The dream lives on.”

A major goal of the Racial Justice Commission is to eradicate the sin of racism in our church and in society. Another important goal is to foster appreciation for the ethnic and cultural differences within our church and to encourage our church to focus on God’s love for each of us and on God’s call for each of us to love one another. The students of St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart have embraced and exemplified God’s call.

Corlis Sellers is Racial Justice Commission coordinator and associate director of Lifelong Faith Formation for Black Catholics in the Camden Diocese.

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