Louisville’s historic St. Boniface Catholic Church, which sits in between the campus of University Hospital and East Market Street, was established in 1836 by German Catholics who named the place of worship in honor of Germany’s patron saint. Franciscan Friars went on to take over responsibility for the church and tended to the parish for nearly 150 years, while Ursuline Sisters oversaw the parish’s school for nearly sixty years until it closed in 1967. A visit I made to the historic site last week, however, was prompted by a more recent development on the St. Boniface campus: the founding of Nativity Academy.
In comparison to some of Louisville’s schools, Nativity Academy is a newcomer: the school was founded in 2003. In spite of its young age, however, the school does share St. Boniface’s historic campus – the academy, as the parish school once did, sits side-by-side with the Gothic-style church. This past Thursday, the school celebrated the graduation of its most recent class of eighth-graders, and for those, like me, in attendance, the ceremony’s setting inside the sanctuary of the church itself proved to be a moving experience. I could not help but be struck by the fitting nature of the sacred space as a place for Nativity’s graduates to start the next phase of their lives.
The ceremony began with the graduates processing down the center aisle of the sanctuary, each graduate dressed in a burgundy gown and a matching cap adorned with a gold tassel. The burgundy and gold, for one, reflected the school’s colors, but the maroon gowns made for another visual connection, too. They reflected the maroon back-most wall of St. Boniface, which serves as a back-drop to the cream-colored stone of the intricate altar. It was a touching sight to see that the eighth-graders –on their last day as students on the St. Boniface campus– and the church itself were similarly robed, as if to say, “This place –for at least this one last evening– is where these students belong.”
The time at which the ceremony took place also proved to be an à propos element of the scene. Because the graduation began at 7:00 p. m., it was, thus, just the right time of day for the rays of the setting sun to stream through the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows on its western wall. As the young graduates made their way down the aisle, filtered light framed their silhouettes. It felt appropriate that as the students turned the page, so to speak, to the next chapter of their lives that the sun set, literally, on the chapter they concluded that night.
The setting sun also brought to life the depictions of the Saints portrayed within the stained-glass windows, and the images of Saint Nicholas and Saint Otto appeared particularly illuminated. Yet while the light caught the portrayals of those two Saints especially well, as I looked around the entirety of the sanctuary, I saw all the Saints portrayed there in a new way. That night, St. Joseph, St. Mary, St. Bernadette, St. Francis, St. Margaret Mary, and all the rest, seemed to play a specific part: role model for the young people starting the rest-of-their-lives then and there.
While I cannot attest to what the graduates took away from the sanctuary’s many images of holy people from the Church's past, I, for one, took this: what a reassurance it is to know that we are not alone as our life journeys takes their twists and turns, ups and downs, starts and stops. The numerous portraits of the Saints, looking on from their various placements around the church, reflected –at least in my mind– the notion that the spirits of those same Saints are looking down on all of us from Heaven as we, too, strive to live the life God intended for us. Lebo M’s lyrics from the song “They Live in You” came to mind: They live in you, they live in me, they’re watching over everything we see . . .
No less, as I sat there in one of the church’s many wooden pews, I found myself drawn, in particular, to the various depictions of Mary throughout the sanctuary. I could not help but consider the example Mary set with her life, and, specifically, with the depth of her faith. To think that Mary, like the graduates of Thursday night, was once just a young person unsure how the life ahead of her would unfold, when, lo, an angel appeared and forever changed the trajectory of her existence, amazed me. I thought about her bravery: she did not run, she did not hide, and she did not ignore her calling from God, but, rather, accepted the challenge in spite of the great hardship it inevitably brought.
As I contemplated Mary that night, another thought occurred to me about what her example still teaches the world: while, often, life is filled with great joy, it is also filled with great sorrow. It is so common to see Mary portrayed as crowned with stars, wreathed with flowers, and adorned in colorful robes, which I do not mean to question – as Mary herself stated it, "The Almighty has done great things for me." Yet as I looked around St. Boniface on Thursday evening, my eyes also fell upon Mary’s face as it appears in the twelfth Station of The Cross, where she is shown standing at the foot of the timbers on which Her Son hangs. I was reminded that The Queen of Heaven is Our Lady of Sorrows as well. It is striking that in spite of all her grace and glory, Mary, too, experienced indescribable sadness.
Of course, I wish only good things for Nativity’s most recent graduating class, but I know that, inevitably, they will have, at times, great pain and tragedy within their lives. Perhaps the graduates can, at the very least, hold onto a memory of the sacred space on East Liberty Street in which they graduated Thursday. Here’s praying that through all the challenges they will experience in life, Nativity’s students will continue to be surrounded by the family, friends, saints, and, of course, Holy Spirit, which surrounded them Thursday evening.
• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.
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