St. Francis de Sales School motivates students to be stewards of peace in their community and moral leaders of tomorrow.
Responding to the needs of the community has been the mission of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Elementary School for over 100 years. Located in West Philadelphia, St. Francis de Sales has always had an outstanding reputation for serving minority and immigrant communities. Where the original student body was largely Irish-American, today’s school is comprised of an eclectic and electrifying mix of refugees and children from over 45 nations. From its inception, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (that’s who taught me!), have staffed St. Francis de Sales.
Many of St. Frances de Sales students have fled revolutions, guerrillas, and wars to come to America to pursue their dreams of peace and freedom. They are the survivors–from Cambodia, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Dominican Republic, and dozens of other nations, along with children from the local neighborhood.
I just heard about St. Francis last week while attending the world premier of the documentary, “Room for Peace”. The documentary was created by a group of Villanova University students as part of their Social Justice Documentary course.
The Villanova students hit the ground running, and at the end of 15 weeks they had a 30-minute documentary. The film was outstanding, and I think it accomplished its goals of making more people aware of the amazing work that is being done at St. Francis, and providing well-deserved recognition for the students, faculty, and administrators at St. Francis. I also think the film will be an effective fund raiser for the school.
My favorite part of the film, and at the heart of St. Francis de Sales School, was a look at its Peace Program.
The school has a firm commitment to creating peacemakers. The Peace Program has received national recognition for teaching children how to resolve their differences in a non-confrontational manner. Many of the students live in a high-crime area, but the Peace Program has helped children cope and live with their surroundings –and their multi-cultural differences– in an atmosphere of respect, giving, sharing, and taking individual responsibility.
The program began in 1992, when escalating neighborhood violence led to tragedies involving St. Francis students, said Sister Constance Marie Touey, principal. There was the boy whose father was shot and paralyzed. The kindergartner whose sister was shot – and who herself later witnessed a shooting in a corner store. And the mounting horror as four young St. Francis graduates were murdered one after the other.
Sister Constance made up her mind that St. Francis “needed to do something different. We are a Catholic school. We needed to do something for peace.” So she took the Bible story of the “peaceable kingdom” from the Book of Isaiah, of a place where the lion shall lie down with the lamb. (The school mascot is a lion. From the student handbook: “The lion is brave, noble and strong. We, too, want to be brave, noble and strong and use our strength not to bully others, but to create peace. It takes courage to act this way.”)
The program teaches conflict resolution and peer mediation, empowering the students to solve problems peacefully. The centerpiece of the program is its “Peace Room,”a cheerfully decorated classroom where students with disputes of any nature are asked to sit at a table to mediate their differences. The students are asked to find a solution that will avoid further conflict or violence.
The school also sponsors an after school “Peace Club” and maintains a “Peace Wall” where photos of students embracing the ideals of the program are featured. In addition, each week students are chosen and then recognized as Peacemakers during morning school announcements. At the end of the school year, the school then selects two winners, from all the students who have been recognized throughout the year, who best exemplify the values of the Peace Program. They are awarded the locally prestigious “Peace Medal”.
These students are living symbols of one of my favorite beatitudes:
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
I can’t imagine a more important lesson to teach children than to be a peacemaker; just think what life would be like if these children become world leaders some day.
Instead of sending our young men and women off to battle, the world leaders could sit around a Peace Table and not leave until their disputes are settled. Perhaps the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary can serve as the mediators…
As I was writing this post, two songs kept coming to mind, songs that I have mentioned in previous posts. But I think it’s worth including them here as well: