Poetry contest helps middle school students find their voice in word and life

February 8, 2022

2019 Poet Laureate Maegan McCarthy, in center, wears her winning medal and holds her award. Behind her from left to right, teacher Maria Illich, CLA president Sara Cortez, teacher Danielle Santowski, Scanlan Foundation president Larry W. Massey Jr. and St. Helen Catholic School Principal Dr. Phyliss Coleman. (Photo courtesy of the McCarthy family)

HOUSTON — Catholic school teacher Maria Illich, who founded the Archdiocesan Poetry Contest for sixth to eighth grades in 2016, was so hands-on that she wove crowns of laurels, an ancient Greek and Roman symbol of victory and success, for the winning poets.

“They also won medals and trophies, but for me, the true reward was hearing the students share their words in the context of the ultimate Word, Jesus Christ,” said the teacher of more than 30 years.

She also saw how the students delighted in finding their own voices.

Illich is busy writing her own works, including a published award-winning children’s book “The Legend of the Ladybug” about a young girl in medieval France calling upon her courage and the Blessed Virgin Mary to stop a famine.

“But after five years of organizing this contest, I wanted help because I teach full-time classes at St. Francis de Sales School while also overseeing a dyslexia class and teaching after-school writing classes,” said the University of St. Thomas graduate.

Enter the Catholic Literary Arts (CLA), which will now be helping to inspire students to write about religious topics, better their writing skills and increase their academic confidence.

Sarah Cortez, a published author and member of the Texas Institute of Letters, is the founder and president of CLA. A Rice University graduate in psychology and religion, Cortez said, “We want to increase the visibility of the contest as well as the number of students participating.”

She added, “That’s why we’ll have two contests this year - one for archdiocesan schools and a separate one for homeschooling scholars. These are the only poetry contests of their kind open to students to develop skills in writing for the glory of God.”

This year’s poetry contests revolve around the theme of Spiritual Works of Mercy. That topic includes feeding the hungry; counseling the doubtful; bearing wrongs patiently; forgiving offenses willingly and comforting the afflicted.

There have been hundreds of submissions annually in the past years. This year, a total of nine winners from each contest will be chosen — three from each of the grades to win first, second and third prizes. All nine will have their poetry published by CLA in an anthology. Those 18 will also receive medals as well as paid tuition to participate in Fearless Catholic Writing Camp held each June at the University of St. Thomas.

From the first-prize winners in each grade, a poet laureate of each contest will be selected by Cortez.
“A committee chooses the first, second and third prize winners in each grade by blind-judging the poetry submitted. No identifying information of names or schools is visible to the judges, and the sole criterion is quality.” Cortez said.

The archdiocesan contest opened for submissions Feb. 1 and will be accepting poems through April 8. The homeschooling contest opened Feb. 8 and will accept poems through April 13. She said that the Scanlan Foundation is partly underwriting the program, but additional donations and sponsors are still needed. The tax-deductible donations will help provide a cash prize of tuition assistance to the poet laureate and top winners in each grade level.

Larry W. Massey Jr., president of the Scanlan Foundation, said, “Our mission is to help Catholic Literary Arts lift up our youth to experience the beauty of poetry.”

He added, “By building and supporting this effort, we will enable our children to better develop their minds towards the beauty in our world.”

Maegan McCarthy, at the time a seventh-grade student attending St. Helen Catholic School, won as poet laureate in 2019 with her poem “Watch the River Flow.”

The ending lines are: “All creation sings God’s holy name;
Prophet and beast bow before the lamb;
The overflowing cup, the great I Am.”

Maegan’s proud parents Tim and Annie McCarthy noticed she was more self-confident after the poetry festival. Now Maegan is one of a select group of teens being mentored by CLA faculty in a newly launched teen writers mentorship program.

Maegan McCarthy said, “Through the contest, I gained a joy and boldness in God that I did not have before. Today my writing has developed beyond my expectations. My confidence has now brought me to become a worship leader who actively leads others to Jesus.”

For more information, visit the website at www.catholicliteraryarts.org or email