Sally Young was not excited when she learned she and her classmates each had been assigned to write a speech and deliver it in front of their principal, Mary Mantelli.
“It was very nerve-wracking. I’m not usually a public speaker, and I didn’t really want to do it at first,” recalled Sally, an eighth-grader at St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva.
Sally’s mother encouraged her to try her best, however, so Sally set about the task of writing a speech. After she’d finished writing she practiced her delivery over and over again until finally it was time to present it in front of Mantelli. Her efforts paid off, and Mantelli chose Sally as the one of the school’s two eighth-grade representatives in the First Annual St. Francis de Sales Oratorical Contest.
Much to Sally’s surprise, she won the seventh- and eighth-grade division of the contest, which drew 19 students from four schools in the region.
“I told myself before the winners were announced that I’d be OK with anyone winning because I’d made friends with all of the other competitors and they were all really nice,” Sally remarked.
The competition, which was held May 21 at St. Francis-St. Stephen School, was inspired by an annual oratorical contest sponsored by the former DeSales High School from approximately 1999 until the school’s closure in 2012. The idea of bringing back the contest in some form was sparked by a conversation between Mantelli and her daughter, Laura, who shared fond memories of participating in the oratorical contest before graduating from the now-closed St. Mary School in Waterloo in 2003.
“Her memories prompted me to mention the contest to several people across several generations of teachers and graduates of St. Francis-St. Stephen School and other Catholic schools of the Finger Lakes. Everyone had similarly positive memories of the event, and so I decided it should make a comeback,” Mantelli explained.
The previous contest had been open to Catholic schools in the vicinity of DeSales, which had offered a partial scholarship as the top prize. This new contest is open to students at all Catholic middle schools throughout the Diocese of Rochester. St. Mary School in Canandaigua, St. Michael School in Penn Yan and Tyburn Academy of Mary Immaculate in Auburn joined St. Francis-St. Stephen in the contest this year, and several other schools already have expressed interest in next year’s contest, which will be held Jan. 24, 2019.
St. Francis-St. Stephen’s seventh- and eighth-grade religion teacher, Pamela Kehoe, volunteered to organize the revamped contest with the help of fellow teachers Michael Cragg and Cathy Caster and retired teacher Mary Friday. Students were instructed to write speeches in response to the following quote from St. Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”
Students’ speeches described what this quote meant to them and how their Catholic education prepared them to put these words into action, Mantelli said. Not only was responding to the quote from St. Teresa an excellent spiritual exercise, but the act of preparing and delivering their speeches helped prepare students for the future, according to Jennifer Tessendorf, whose daughter, Melanie Khan, attends St. Mary School and won second place in the contest’s seventh- and eighth-grade division.
“The students get practice not just speaking in front of an audience, but also having to think about their expression, enunciation and projecting their voices. The time limit also forces them to think about how to be both concise and compelling. These are skills that they will use all of their lives,” Tessendorf said.
Students who are poised and articulate have a distinct advantage over those who are not, Mantelli agreed.
The oratorical contest also brought unexpected benefits for parents and students alike, who were able to meet families from other Catholic schools, Tessendorf said.
“It was a great opportunity for all of us to visit another school and meet new people who also appreciate the education that Catholic schools provide,” she added.
Sally said the contestants were able to talk and get to know each other while the judges were deliberating after all the speeches had been given.
“I made a lot of friends,” she said. “It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be.”