Thirty students from Divine Savior Holy Angels High School visited Rome over Christmas break, where they saw Pope Francis three times and visited iconic landmarks like the Colosseum. (Submitted photo)

Christmas break for high school students usually means a much-appreciated chance to sleep in, eat Christmas cookies and do a good amount of nothing at all.

That wasn’t the case this year for 30 students at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, but you won’t hear any of them complaining. What their Christmas break lacked in downtime, it made up for in mouthwatering Italian cuisine, glimpses of Pope Francis, unforgettable spiritual encounters and experiences that one student called “more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.”

From Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, 30 students from the all-girls school on Milwaukee’s northwest side and five chaperones participated in a whirlwind tour of Florence, Assisi and Rome. The trip has been in the works for several years and was a joint venture between the school’s Campus Ministry and its Latin program, said DSHA Director of Campus Ministry Stephanie Monson.

“We wanted to customize a pilgrimage so the students could experience the connection between our Roman roots and our Christian faith,” she said. “There is no more beautiful wonder in the world than a student who is finding their place and faith in it. Italy showed them how deep our Catholic tradition is and how much a part of it they are.”

“I jumped at the opportunity,” said Anna Pienkos, a junior. Pienkos is a student in DSHA Latin teacher Thomas Head’s class, and Head was instrumental in planning the trip (he also chaperoned it, accompanied by his wife and 7-month-old daughter).

“I decided to go because of how much the history of Rome fascinates me and because my family has always put travel as an important part of personal growth,” said Pienkos’ fellow junior Nina Kuehn. It was the first international trip for both students.

The group departed Dec. 28, arriving in Florence in time for a short dinner and a walk through the iconic city. The next day brought them to Assisi on the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ miracle of the creche.

“There were creches everywhere we looked and in such diverse presentations,” said Monson. The visit to Assisi also included a drive through the countryside, a visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis, plus a walking tour of the city. The group then traveled to Rome as the sun set — a “stunning experience,” said Kuehn — and spent New Year’s Eve in the Eternal City.

“We had Sunday Mass at the Chair of St. Peter in Latin, which our students had been happily anticipating for months,” said Monson. “After, we saw the pope for the first time at the weekly Angelus in St. Peter’s Square. Later that afternoon, the rain pushed us into the colonnade of St. Peter’s, where we toured a creche exhibit. We were able to celebrate Te Deum and Evening Prayer with Pope Francis and see him again, close up, twice as he left the event.”

“As we were walking down the front steps of the Vatican, I noticed a large group of people beginning to flood to the right side of the basilica,” said Pienkos. “I ran as fast as I could to the fence, and began to hear people yelling for Pope Francis. I pulled out my phone, and just as I did, he and his security rolled past. He had a smile on his face, and was waving to me and the rest of the crowd.”

She said she “will forever cherish that moment.”

“I felt blessed that I had the opportunity of being in his presence,” she said.

The group bade farewell to 2023 with a traditional Italian dinner and watched fireworks over St. Peter’s Basilica.

“I doubt many American teenage girls were lucky enough to have seen New Year’s Eve fireworks go off over St. Peter’s Basilica surrounded by their closest friends,” said Kuehn.

On New Year’s Day, the group celebrated the Solemnity of Mary Mother God at the Motherhouse of the Priests of the Divine Savior and toured the Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. In their remaining days in Italy, they had the opportunity to pray at St. Peter’s tomb, tour the Colosseum and Forum, visit the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, pray a Rosary at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and experience the beauty of the Sistine Chapel.

Monson said she hopes the trip helped the students to “feel connected to their faith and to live it more fully.”

“Experiences like this are so formative as a high school student,” said Monson. “They are forming their identity in Christ and so seeing the beauty, deep history and vibrancy in their Catholic faith on a trip like this changes something in them.”

“I can only hope that one day I will return to Rome. I hope to study abroad for a

semester or two in college, and am fairly sure that Rome will be the destination for that time,” said Pienkos. “Isn’t it fate that I return one day? I mean, I did throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain.”