AVON — The oldest student at St. Agnes School was born two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Yet the school’s youngsters are well aware of the tragedy’s significance, thanks largely to a community remembrance organized each year by the school.
Under a hot mid-morning sun on Sept. 11, the St. Agnes students — many brandishing American flags — marched single file out of their school to the adjacent park in the village circle. They were joined by civic organizations, particularly members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5292 and American Legion Color Guard Post 294, as well as many onlookers. The remembrance event lasted barely 30 minutes, but still managed to produce several stirring tributes.
"Twelve years ago, we shook with grief," said Dr. Gerald Benjamin, St. Agnes School’s principal, in his introductory remarks. He added that although we live in "a world seemingly in perpetual conflict," the 9-11 tragedy carried extra impact because it was a rare instance when "chaos came to our doorstep."
In her opening prayer, Sister Karen Dietz, SSJ — pastoral administrator of St. Agnes/St. Paul of the Cross/St. Rose parishes in Avon, Honeoye Falls and Lima — said the Avon event promoted the same kind of peace Pope Francis sought when he called for a day of fasting and prayer four days earlier for Syria, the Middle East and other war-torn parts of the world. Sister Dietz was followed by Avon Mayor Tom Freeman, who observed that the date of Sept. 11 carries similar impact for us as July 4 and Dec. 25.
The keynote presentation was then delivered by state Sen. Catharine Orman Young of District 57 (Olean/Jamestown), a 1974 graduate of St. Agnes School. She remarked that St. Agnes was where "I learned about Jesus and his example of helping others. So many Americans followed the example of Jesus on 9-11 and the days after." Regarding emergency responders at the World Trade Center, Young noted that "as everyone else was running away, the firemen and policemen were running toward it." She encouraged the St. Agnes students to adopt a similar spirit of selflessness.
"Every day we have the power to do something kind," Young said, emphasizing that whether the gesture is large or small, "it adds up."
She contended that those who masterminded the attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania had expected the United States would be thrown into disarray, but "the terrorists were very, very wrong. Everyone was unified like never before." Young closed her talk by noting the importance of protecting freedom and especially following Jesus” command to love one another.
Following the speeches, St. Agnes’ teachers recited a "Litany of Hope"; the school’s third- and fourth-graders led recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; fifth- and sixth-graders offer a prayer for children; first- and second-graders led the Pledge of Allegiance; and Sandra DiPasquale, the school’s fourth-grade teacher, sang "God Bless America." Students then proceeded back to school, accompanied by soulful bagpipe music from Peter Watson, who had also performed at the ceremony’s beginning.
Benjamin told the Catholic Courier that the annual Sept. 11 observance began in 2002 as an in-school ceremony, and since 2003 St. Agnes has involved the local community as well. Francesco Simone, a sixth-grader, said his awareness of Sept. 11’s significance has deepened each time he’s participated.
"Through the years it’s occurred to us we don’t just do it for show," he remarked.
Although none of St. Agnes’ students are old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001 — fifth-grader James Thomas noted that his sister, Isabelle, a sixth-grader and St. Agnes’ oldest pupil, was born Sept. 13, 2001 — several said they’ve viewed jarring video of the attacks that caused the deaths of approximately 3,000 people.
"Every time I watch it, I understand more what a terrible tragedy it was, done by people who hate America for some reason," Francesco said.
Sixth-grader Gabe Cote said he was amazed by "all this smoke and dust" from the World Trade Center’s towers and how each building collapsed in one big heap. Francesco noted that his parents, who lived in Italy at the time, turned on the television and thought they were watching a movie. Lillian Steele, also a sixth-grader, agreed that "it’s like it was in a movie" but "you keep thinking, ‘this actually happened.’" Fellow sixth-grader Aiden Aguirre said he has a hard time comprehending "that so many people could lose their lives at one time," adding that he becomes sadder when imagining the impact on the victims’ loved ones.
"It was just a horrible day," Lillian said. "I hope we never have to experience something like that, ever."