Fr. John Schreiter, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Waukesha, is nothing if not unpredictable.
“I’m always looking for ways to get the kids involved,” Fr. Schreiter said in a telephone conversation with your Catholic Herald.
“We never know what he has in store for us,” Kathy Egan, Waukesha Catholic Middle School-St. Joseph Campus teacher, added via email. Egan, a parishioner of St. Mary in Waukesha and a 12-year faculty member at the school that serves all four of the city’s Catholic congregations, went on to explain Fr. Schreiter’s memorable Mass for the middle schoolers last March.
It was the feast day of Mother Drexel, a saint about whom Fr. Schreiter – as a former pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam – knew a great deal.
“She had special affection for minority children,” he said during the phone interview, adding that the saint came from an extremely wealthy family and founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university for African Americans in the United States.
The philanthropic Katharine, spurred by a meeting with Pope Leo XIII, founded an order of nuns, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to serve the educational needs of African-Americans and Native Americans. The Philadelphia-born Drexel lived for nearly a century (1858-1955) and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000 as only the second U.S.-born saint.
After sharing the saint’s story with the Waukesha Catholic students, Fr. Schreiter called Egan and her religion 1 class – which had planned and participated in that day’s liturgy – to the front of the assembly. He handed one of the pupils a $100 bill and said it was to be given to a charity of which St. Katharine Drexel would’ve approved. The class was to choose the charity.
As it turned out, the middle schoolers went one better.
“Later that day,” recalled Egan, “I was talking to a group of teachers and we came up with the idea of … having the students also donate money and extending (Fr. Schreiter’s challenge) to the whole eighth grade class of 69 students. I ran the idea past my religion 1 class and they thought it was a great idea. We decided to make it our beginning-of-Lent project. They figured out that each student would only need to bring in about $1.50 to match Fr. John’s $100. We collected the money over a period of about 10 days. Many of the students brought in more than the suggested amount, raising a total of $170.”
The students’ ability to more than match his contribution “was just incredibly neat,” Fr. Schreiter said. He added that the youngsters selected “two excellent charities”: St. Joseph Indian School in South Dakota and Cross Trainers Academy, which, according to Egan, “provides a Christian education for at-risk children in the Milwaukee community.” One of the Waukesha Catholic eighth-graders knew of Cross Trainers Academy “through volunteer work,” Egan said.
“I’m really proud of the kids,” Fr. Schreiter remarked. “I think this is just an exceptional eighth-grade class.”
Egan added, “We are all proud of the good leadership skills they have demonstrated and their enthusiasm to get involved in school and extracurricular activities.”
Several of the students commented on the project, by email.
“I thought how we all came together as the eighth grade was very powerful,” wrote Mariana Ryan, a member of St. William Parish.
Sam Schellhase, also of St. William, added, “It was interesting how each of us bringing in less than $2, plus Fr. John’s $100, earned more than $250 to give to two charities. It was a fun project.”
According to Libby Horan of St. John Neumann, “Fr. John is an awesome priest who is inspirational and fun. He gave us this charity challenge that helped us learn more about who St. Katharine Drexel supported, and taught us to work together for a cause.” St. Mary parishioner Emily Matt summarized, “I felt like St. Katharine Drexel would’ve been proud of us.”