Arthur Ortiz (LEFT), UST assistant vice president of enrollment management, with high school winners. (Photo courtesy of UST)
HOUSTON - Catholic school students, parents and teachers from around the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston gathered to celebrate the winners of the ninth annual University of St. Thomas (UST)/Archdiocesan Essay Contest with a Mass and Awards Ceremony on Jan. 23 at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, celebrated Mass and shook the hand of every student who received an award. Sister Kevina Keating, CCVI, superintendent of Catholic schools, and Dr. Dominic Aquila, UST's vice president for academic affairs, also attended.
A record number of 5,639 Catholic school students from third through 12th grades wrote essays on topics related to personal and Catholic school standards. The contest was held just prior to National Catholic Schools Week, a time to focus on the benefits of Catholic education, and the essay prompts were inspired by this year's NCEA Catholic Schools Week slogan, "Catholic Schools Raise the Standards." Students were asked to write about such things as the importance of higher standards in their own particular lives or even whether Catholic schools having higher standards was appropriate and why.
Elsie Biron, UST director of Catholic Outreach, said the essay contest is a way to draw all levels of Catholic education in the Archdiocese together, reminding everyone that Catholic education in our Archdiocese is seamless.
"To my knowledge, it is the only contest in the country which unifies and involves all levels of education within a diocese, encouraging students at each of the levels to be simultaneously thinking of similar topics, and then to come together to pray and celebrate the winners of a contest, with school representatives at every level of education," Biron said.
There were 47 schools who participated in the awards ceremony. Wanting to personally congratulate each student for being able to write effectively about these topics, the Cardinal gave each winner a rosary blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. Students earning Honorable Mention received a small crucifix also blessed by the Holy Father. Both were given to remind the students of Christ, the best of all mentors.
During his animated homily at Mass, Cardinal DiNardo said more expected of Catholic schools and their students, and if Catholic schools were not bringing students closer to Christ, he'd close them down.
"From reading the students' essays, it was quite clear that the students understood the importance of high standards, both for themselves, as well as for their schools." Biron said.
Out of all the essays submitted, schools selected finalists for each grade level, and the essays were read and ranked by 18 UST faculty and staff members, who chose the winners. The essays of all first place winners were enlarged as posters and put on display at the reception that followed the awards ceremony.
The first and second place winners in 11th and 12th grades received a $1,500 scholarship to UST, if they enroll.
The scholarship winners are:
• 11th grade: first-place winner Matt O'Conner and second-place winner Daniel Morgan, both of St. Thomas High School, and second-place winner Justin Viernes of O'Connell High School
• 12th grade: first-place winner Laura Loustalot and second-place winner Stephanie LaMotta, both of St. Pius X High School
While there are regional celebrations during Catholic Schools Week, Biron said the Essay Contest is an opportunity for representatives from every Catholic school in the Archdiocese to gather with the Cardinal and the University of St. Thomas.
"It is UST's opportunity to salute the efforts of Catholic education in the elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as to individually congratulate the students, who through their essays, indicate their understanding of the application of standards to their personal lives," she said.
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