Melrose, Freeport students learn good things can come from tragedy

Sacred Heart School in Freeport invited students and staff from St. Mary’s School in Melrose to pray, share a meal and get to know one another March 18, just one week after their church suffered a devastating fire.

In the hours and days following the fire at St. Mary’s March 11, Robert Doyle, principal of St. Mary’s School, said he received hundreds of phone calls, emails and expressions of support in more ways than he ever imagined.

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Sacred Heart kindergartener Johnny Ettel laughs with a kindergartener from St. Mary School in Melrose during lunch March 18. The Freeport school hosted the K-6th grade students from St. Mary’s for Stations of the Cross, lunch and recess. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

Benedictine Sister Janine Braun, principal at Sacred Heart School, offered to have the students join them for a hot meal and joint activities.

“We just wanted to, from Catholic school to Catholic school, be good neighbors, to show our support and help them out in any we can, to make it an easier week for them,” Sister Janine said.

After celebrating an emotion-filled Mass in their own school gym in Melrose, students and staff boarded buses to Freeport where they watched Sacred Heart sixth-graders perform the Stations of the Cross portrayed in shadows. They prayed together, sang together and many even shed tears together.

Doyle presented Sacred Heart with a card the St. Mary’s students made for them.

“We want to give you this card in thanksgiving for all of you who are keeping us in mind and have been giving us support all week,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before we can get back into the church, but we are the church and we will continue to celebrate. We will survive.”

For some students, this was the first time they had met kids from the other school, but for others it was a reunion. Several students had friends, neighbors, cousins, even siblings, at the other school. Sixth-grade students from both schools spent time together at Long Lake Conservation Center, an environmental learning center in northern Minnesota. Others share in community activities like theater and sports.

Sacred Heart sixth-grader Maretta Van Beck said praying for the St. Mary’s students made her “feel really good inside.”

“It just feels good to think that you are doing something good for people who have lost something that’s really important to them,” she said. ““It’s really nice to see them here at our school especially because I go to gymnastics with some of these girls. It’s really nice to see them because we’ve also gone to Long Lake together and we have a special bond with them.”

Sister Janine, who also teaches sixth grade at Sacred Heart, said this kind of bonding is important because most of the sixth-graders will come together next year in the Melrose school district when they enter seventh grade.

VIDEO: Benedictine Sister Janine Braun, principal at Sacred Heart School in Freeport, and Robert Doyle, principal of St. Mary School in Melrose, talk about the day.

St. Mary’s sixth-grade teacher Sue Pundsack has had a lot of teaching moments this week as well. On Monday [March 14], the first day back after the fire, Pundsack said there were a lot of stories and many questions.

“We did a lot of listening in those first hours,” she said. “We said our morning prayers and after phy. ed., we took a walk around the church building. We offered thanksgiving for all the firefighters and all those that were helping.”

Tyler Welle, a sixth-grader from St. Mary’s, was at the church the night of the fire, bringing sandwiches and water to the firefighters and others who were there.

“It was hard, especially after you’ve been baptized here, had your first Communion here,” Welle said. “There’s a lot of memories there.”

Despite the obvious heartache, there have been several good lessons coming from it, Pundsack said. Many of the students’ families have helped with supplies, including milk for their daily milk break and a hot meal donated and served by a local family.

“I hope when the students see others stepping in to help that it inspires them to be giving,” she said, “to learn to be gracious receivers but also to be givers.”

During the school Mass at Sacred Heart March 18, Sister Janine said their pastor, Father Dan Walz, shared a profound message.

“Father [Walz] said in his homily that there are some miracles that happened in this and he said, ‘I don’t know when or if they’re going to be revealed but we need to know that good things can happen out of bad things,’” Sister Janine recalled. “Seeing these communities come together and getting to know each other better is just one of them.”

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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