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Saint Bernard graduation marks return to in-person ceremonies

Norwich — The Saints came marching into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Wednesday as seniors. They marched out graduates.

The school graduated 53 seniors last year, conforming to the wave of digital high school and college graduations. Yet, the students were able to get some in-person closure by participating in commencement exercises earlier in May 2020 for the sake of a video played later that month during the official proceedings. This year’s graduation was normal, aside from the wearing of masks.

Last year, seniors filtered in one at a time to be filmed walking between the pews and receiving their diploma covers; their official diplomas were mailed to them. The cathedral did not fill up as it did this year — 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 the virtual ceremony.

On Wednesday in Norwich, most of the trappings of the pandemic had disappeared, or, in this case, appeared. Around 200 people were present in the cathedral on Wednesday. Students prepared for the event downstairs with the help of staff, who rearranged tassels and ran through how walking up to get diplomas would work one last time.

Senior Sam Salas of Lebanon said she felt the school did a good job of maintaining normalcy. She said the seniors were fine with dealing with masks at graduation as long as it meant a normal, in-person ceremony. And she thanked teachers who sacrificed their tickets to graduation so students’ families could come.

“A lot of teachers sacrificed their tickets so that we could have more family members,” she said. “I have stepparents and I was only allowed two, but since some teachers sacrificed their spot, I could have more.”

Senior Ryan Proulx of Gales Ferry also said he appreciated the effort to have an in-person ceremony and “To have a conclusion when we didn’t really have much of an academic year. Personally, I’m ready for the closure and completion of one chapter and to step into the next one.”

This year’s graduation followed the typical order, with the processional, the invocation, the pledge of allegiance and then welcoming remarks from Headmaster Don Macrino. The orator’s address was delivered by Olivia Massad, who had to audition for the honor.

“You, the Class of 2021, have endured,” Macrino said. “You have made many sacrifices through your senior year, and your courage has been tested. I’m proud to say you’ve passed that test.”

Massad is one of several generations of Saint Bernard students, whose dad, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins went to the school. It’s why she knew she wanted to go to the school.

“I had often come into the building to attend my sisters’ games and ceremonies, and every time I walked in, I could see the sense of community the students had. I wanted to be part of that,” Massad said. “I wanted to walk through the same halls my dad and his siblings did, have some of the same teachers my sisters had, and continue the tradition my family had started. I wanted to be part of the same community that made them who they are.”

After becoming a student, though, Massad said she felt “community” wasn’t a strong enough word, and that “family” better described her relationship with her fellow Saints. Part of that, Massad notes, is because of the small size of Saint Bernard. While some see knowing almost every students’ name in the entire school as a curse, “I call it a blessing,” she said.

“There was never a day, not even on my first day, when I walked through the halls and felt lost or I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “That feeling of welcomeness is something I will always take with me.”

Toward the end of her speech, Massad took time to marvel at the range of talents practiced by the class of only several dozen students.

“Among the 45 of us you can find a soccer player, a swimmer, an actor, a singer, a painter, a scholar, a baker, but most of all, a Saint — a family of Saints,” she said.

As someone with an intimate understanding of the family tradition of Saint Bernard, Massad broadly contextualized what it means to graduate from the school.

“Whether you’re the first or 10th person in your family to attend Saint Bernard's, we all have a part in this tradition, our own tradition, that starts here and now,” she said. “So leave a small part of you here and take a piece of Saint Bernard’s with you. Use it as a guide, as a compass, and treasure it.”

Massad’s speech was followed by the conferring of diplomas, the shifting of tassels, the presentation of medallions to alumni parents and grandparents, received from their children or grandchildren, The Most Reverend Bishop Michael Cote’s message, and the recessional. Nine students handed out a total of 10 medallions.

Cote’s comments this year were set up well by his comments from last year’s graduation regarding the coronavirus.

“The pandemic which presently afflicts the world has cost many lives and caused great hardship for families and world economies,” Cote said last year. “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.”

On Wednesday, he told those gathered, “It’s a particular pleasure to join you this evening for these exercises, especially since a gathering of this sort was impossible a year ago.” He told the graduating seniors that he admired their wherewithal in getting through the pandemic. And he mentioned why Saint Bernard holds its graduations in the cathedral.

“We value you so much,” he said. “You are sons and daughters of God, and you have great dignity before God, and so we want to make this occasion a solemn occasion.”

s.spinella@theday.com

Members of the Saint Bernard School Class of 2021 toss their caps Wednesday, June 2, 2021, during their class photo in Monsignor King Memorial Park following commencement exercises at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Members of the Saint Bernard School Class of 2021 toss their caps Wednesday, June 2, 2021, during their class photo in Monsignor King Memorial Park following commencement exercises at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

For a gallery of more photos from Saint Bernard's graduation ceremony, click here.

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