FAIRFIELD — Almost 2000 years ago a Greek physician named Luke sat down to write the greatest story ever told, a story that has touched countless lives throughout history. On Friday, the students of Saint Catherine Academy gave the Christmas story special meaning as they retold St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus with a message of faith, hope and love for everyone.
The 16th annual Christmas Pageant, titled “A Cousins’ Christmas,” was performed to a standing-room-only audience at the St. Catherine Center for Special Needs and was, in the words of Executive Director Helen Burland, “Our gift to people who support us and to the families who trust us with their children each day.”
Sixteen students presented a narrated series of tableaux from the Nativity story, beginning with the angel Gabriel’s message to Zechariah that his elderly wife Elizabeth would have a child, who would be John the Baptist, the herald of his cousin Jesus. It was followed by the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the Visitation, Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ Child in the manager, the arrival of the shepherds and magi, and concluded with a spirited rendition of “Feliz Navidad” by the students, which received a sustained standing ovation from the audience.
The Christmas message of the young actors was summed up in a few words the narrator read as the cast assembled on stage: “As we at Saint Catherine Academy work hard each day to love each other and help each other grow, may we inspire the rest of God’s people, in our diocese and throughout the world, to love each other the way good cousins like Elizabeth, Mary, John and Jesus do. In so doing, Jesus can be most fully Emmanuel — God with us.”
Deacon Patrick Toole, Episcopal Delegate for Administration of the diocese, thanked them for their performance and said, “Whatever gifts we receive this Christmas, there won’t be any as moving and beautiful as this. We saw the face of God in these actors. More than a gift, they gave us grace today.”
Anthony Minopoli, a board member of the Academy who attends the event every year with his wife Karen, said, “This is the best way to lead up to Christmas for us.”
Every student is involved and has a role in the pageant, Ms. Burland said, and the staff is in the background, providing support. Since it began, the pageant has helped students understand the true meaning of Christmas and let them demonstrate their abilities.
The pageant is the culmination of a month-long learning experience for the students, which gives them opportunities to practice language skills and gross motor skills, to follow multi-step instructions, and to sing familiar and new songs.
Sister Cheryl Driscoll, RSM, the director of the play and teacher at the Academy, said, “Every year, the students fully embrace the experience, exceed all our expectations and demonstrate that they really understand the true meaning of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Seeing students respond to the message and the reverence with which they approach their roles, confirms that they understand.”
Sister Maureen Ulatowski SSND, who has assisted in the production for 16 years, said rehearsals began a week before Thanksgiving and that she is always inspired by the pageant. “You see these special-needs children shine and come through at an event like this. This is the real gift of Christmas. Our students know that this is what Christmas is all about.”
Eric Spencer, Director of Education, said, “Preparing for the pageant is such a wonderful experience for our school community. Not only do students and staff interact in unique, authentic ways, but our rehearsals of the Nativity remind us daily of the true meaning of Christmas.”
The pageant, which is an honored tradition at the Academy, tells the story of the Nativity from a different perspective each year, such as that of the Old Testament prophets, the Gospel writers and the Little Drummer Boy. “A Cousins’ Christmas” saw the Nativity through the eyes of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents of John the Baptist and cousins of Mary. The production, based on the Gospel of Luke, was written by Mollie Mitchell, a former teacher at the Academy who now teaches theology at St. Joseph High School.
“I prayed about it and this is what came to me,” Mitchell said.
Her husband, the Rev. Amjad Samuel, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, said that Mollie comes from a close-knit family with many cousins who are dear to her, so the theme of a “Cousins’ Christmas” was familiar to her. He said his parish adapted her script for its pageant, which was performed last week.
The Academy cast included St. Luke played by Antonio Orozco; Zechariah, Vincent DiProperzio; Angel Gabriel, Philip Palilla; Elizabeth, Tanisha Delgado; Mary, Lindsy Paul; Joseph, Fabricio Almeida; Inn Keeper, Maggie McDonald; Shepherds, Frank Maldonado and Luke Norris; Angels, Briana Beliard, Elise Hilton, and Nyah Holmes; the Three Kings, Philip Palilla, Antonio Orozco and Ronald Scott; and narrators Anna Stowe and Eric Spencer.
Ms. Burland thanked the many volunteers, staff members and groups that made the pageant possible and said the work of Saint Catherine’s is based on three simple principles: “Faith makes all things possible. Hope makes all things work. Love makes all things beautiful. May all three be present at your table this year.”
Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs is home to Saint Catherine Academy, a private special education school that offers an alternative program to children ages 5-21. In 2014, an adult day program was created to offer an alternative for young people who had completed their formal education but still needed a structured, supervised environment. In addition, the center supports services throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport to assist parishes and schools in welcoming people with disabilities to be full participants in their communities. More than 40 children and young adults receive daily programming.