Catholic high schools honoring graduates in special ways

Contributing Writer

Mater Dei High School Principal Dennis Litteken wanted to honor the 107 seniors graduating this year in a special way—so he had yard signs made and delivered them to each student’s home in April.

Litteken and Maria Zurliene, director of enrollment, split the list up and trekked not only across Clinton County, where a majority of students reside, but also to Belleville, O’Fallon, Lebanon, Mt. Vernon and north of Greenville­—wherever a senior called home. They managed it in two trips.

“It’s a huge geographic area. But we wanted to recognize the seniors,” he said.

Litteken, who has been at Mater Dei for 34 years, is an alumnus and his four children are graduates. So, he knows what the time-honored traditions mean to families.

As the region copes with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, school officials have had to reinvent the playbook for graduating seniors.

The three Catholic high schools in the Belleville Diocese have had to adapt to new rules. E-distance learning went into effect mid-March. Spring sports were cancelled. Spring musical plans grounded to a halt, so did proms.
Events were postponed, re-scheduled and ultimately scrapped.

Hardest hit, however, is the Class of 2020 who must forego the annual spring rituals that make a year special for seniors.

Nevertheless, administrators and faculties are trying to compensate in other ways.

Through technology, some events are being reformatted into virtual ceremonies.

Litteken said the traditional May 1 Mass was inserted into the students electronic learning schedule, and then posted online for anyone to watch.

Instead of the annual sports banquet and other awards presentations, they will videotape themselves reading aloud the winners.

Schools have used social media to communicate with students and parents, boosting spirits with photos and inspirational posts. The point is to keep the students together in spirit when they are not able to be physically together.

Instead of students wearing their college/military/career T-shirts to school May 1, Althoff students were asked to share selfies of themselves wearing T-shirts from the universities they plan to attend in the fall.

A Gibault student, Johanna “Josie” Hooten, made a video with photos of her 60 classmates through their four years.

In her introduction, she said students entered the world around the time of a national crisis (9/11) and now are leaving high school during one, too.

“I know a lot of us are feeling sad, angry and frustrated that our senior year was cut short, but I don’t want to focus on the negative. I want to focus on the four years of amazing memories and friendships that we all made during high school,” Hooten said.

The 4-minute video has been viewed more than 1,000 times since April 27.

Mater Dei plans to post a photo of each senior and spotlight their accomplishments on the school’s Facebook page, Litteken said.

Trying to find ways to do things within the guidelines has resulted in some innovative ideas.

Along with other high schools in the region, Gibault participated in honoring seniors at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 in military time) on April 17 by turning on the stadium lights for 20 minutes. A drive-by parade took place but there was no stopping or congregating.

Litteken has lit the Mater Dei stadium every Friday night for the past few weeks. He reads the name of every member of the Class of 2020 and plays the school song. He plans to be out there again May 15 and wrap up on May 22.

A drive-through parade for seniors may take place.

“It’s just so hard physically,” he said. “We are so limited—you can’t do much more than that.”

In the city of Waterloo, where Gibault is located, the city has hung up banners along Market Street with the names of Waterloo and Gibault high school seniors.

As the final days wind down, uncertainty surrounds what might be able to be salvaged.

Graduation is set for May 22 but Litteken said they have been waiting to see if they can have a more traditional graduation ceremony instead in the summer. He was hoping at least by mid-July.

“It doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do that either,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what can happen.”

The high schools are in contact with Jonathan Birdsong, superintendent of diocesan schools, on what plans could happen and when, but even that changes as stay-at-home mandates are extended.

Traditionally, Mater Dei holds a banquet the Thursday before graduation followed by presentation of honors and awards. In addition to a graduation ceremony, seniors attend a special Mass with their parents and a breakfast over the weekend.

And while prom was canceled, parents may still put some post-prom activities together, even if it is a virtual platform.

“We are looking at other options,” Litteken said.

“It’s just so hard with social distancing. We will do things if we can,” he said, noting it depends on the government rules as the state rolls out some adjustments and when they could take place.