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Montville’s Saint Bernard School graduates 53 seniors during virtual ceremony

Montville — Saint Bernard School graduated 53 seniors Friday night, albeit in a nontraditional way.

The school conformed to the wave of digital high school and college graduations necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the students were able to get some in-person closure by participating in commencement exercises earlier this month for the sake of a video played during Friday night’s official proceedings.

The unofficial graduation was held May 12 at the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Norwich, the usual location for the Catholic school’s graduation ceremonies, where the seniors filtered in one at a time to be filmed walking between the pews and receiving their diploma covers (their official diplomas are mailed to them). The cathedral did not fill up, as it usually does — it was mostly empty except for a few administrators, the film crew and a photographer — but soon-to-be-graduates experienced at least a modicum of the usual pomp and circumstance ahead of Friday’s virtual ceremony.

Students’ families will be sent a copy of the graduation tape.

Despite the pandemic, Saint Bernard has had reason to celebrate in recent years — enrollment is increasing, and the school is enjoying the spoils of the Hendricks Challenge, a five-year plan started in 2014 and engineered by benefactor Maureen Hendricks, who each consecutive year would donate $200,000 if donors and the diocese could match her contribution.

Don Macrino, who took over as interim headmaster in 2014, has been at the school's helm for the resurgence. His tenure at the sixth- through 12th-grade school coincides with the final academic years of many of the students in the Class of 2020.

It was Saint Bernard’s 62nd commencement, and its first virtual one. Broadcasted on YouTube, the prerecorded video began with drone footage above the cathedral before bringing viewers inside. As "Pomp and Circumstance" played, students were shown in full graduation regalia walking one by one between the pews, smiling and laughing awkwardly on the way to pick up their “diploma.” This lasted about five minutes.

Macrino then introduced campus minister Suzanne Haulotte, who led a prayer for the more than 150 people tuned in, many of whom were watching in parties of multiple people.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, led by talented student-athlete Taina Quiñones, Macrino spoke of the class's strange situation, its distinctive obstacles to overcome.

“Each generation throughout history has been called upon to meet what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge,” Macrino said. “Now America and the entire world face the COVID-19 pandemic ... As those generations before you have surmounted the insurmountable, so it will be with the Class of 2020.”

That was followed by Sean Power, class orator and president, delivering a speech from the cathedral’s lectern, discussing what Saint Bernard meant to him.

“Under normal circumstances, I would probably be speaking to all of you directly. Unfortunately, this is the farthest from normal circumstances most of us have been,” he said.

Power noted that the school improved him and other students, not only intellectually, but morally. He told the story of a fellow runner at school who felt that “if you didn’t throw up at the end of the race, you didn’t try hard enough, and by God, he stood by it.” Power recognized that it was kind of gross, but, he said, it “instilled in me the constant drive and determination” to do something well and fully.

“When a Saint sets their mind to something, it gets done,” Power said.

He also said Saint Bernard made him a better Christian. “When I arrived here as a freshman, I was closer to what my priest referred to as a ‘lukewarm Catholic.' I was even a little upset when I learned I’d have to take more theology classes in high school.” But, as time passed, “I began to understand the place that God holds in our lives.”

Ann Griffin, assistant headmaster, then said the names of all the graduates. As she listed the names, a picture of each student popped up on screen and lingered with information so those watching could see where everyone was going to college, what they’d be studying and if they’d won any “graduation awards,” such as scholarships.

Student Haseeb Qureshi then demonstrated the shifting of the mortarboard tassels so his classmates could do it at home.

Macrino went on to recognize five grandparents or parents who are alumni of Saint Bernard and have children in the Class of 2020. These folks normally would receive alumni medallions during an in-person ceremony, but Macrino said the medallions would be presented at a later date.

The Most Reverend Bishop Michael Cote closed the half-hour ceremony, addressing the graduating seniors. He said they deserved to be recognized for their hard work, and that it is OK if they don’t know exactly what they’ll do in their lives; it is OK, at present, to only have aspirations.

“The pandemic which presently afflicts the world has cost many lives and caused great hardship for families and world economies,” Cote said. “It is a tremendous challenge, which we will hopefully never have to face again. But, it will be overcome. There are always lessons to be learned, even in the dark moments of life.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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