Old and New Traditions

Being an eighty-six-year-old school, Archmere certainly has developed a number of traditions – customs and beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation. Schools like Archmere develop unique cultures based on these beliefs that are manifested in practices each day and events that punctuate the school year.

On Friday, September 14, the opening school Mass took place, which, in recent years, has been held on this date to commemorate the first day of school in the Academy’s inaugural year, 1932. At the end of the Mass, the student body, along with special guests, moved outside to the entrance of the theatre, which was transformed over the summer to a special place on campus to remember especially three individuals: Jerry Ambrogi ’76, Mark Dombroski ’17, and Anthony Penna ’19.

The Ambrogi Gates and Garden” were created over the last several months to remember and honor alumnus, coach, parent, and friend, Jerry Ambrogi ’76. The plaque on the gates explains:

Originally installed to the southeast of this spot during the construction of the Patio in 1916-1918, these IRON GATES were removed from their former location to widen the exit lane. They have been restored here to symbolically welcome new students into the Archmere Academy community and to bid farewell to newly graduated alumni following Commencement each academic year.

 Our LABYRINTH is modeled after one installed in the early decades of the 13thcentury on the floor of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres in Chartres, France. St. Norbert of Xanten established his monastery at Prémontré 100 years earlier in 1120 some 115 miles south-west of Chartres. Walking a labyrinth facilitates prayer and meditation and can represent the medieval practice of undertaking a religious pilgrimage.

Water gardens have been installed and tended to by various cultures around the world for millennia and a water feature is traditionally a part of the cloister in Norbertine abbeys around the world. The KOI POND in this garden is to be a place of gathering for quiet reflection, meditation, and prayer and provides the opportunity to appreciate the wonders of God’s creation.

And so, a new tradition was born with the Class of 2022 and transfer students who walked through the gates to the theatre on their first day at Archmere. The next time they will walk through the gates is on their graduation day. In the meantime, the Class of 2019 will begin the graduation tradition this coming June.

Father McLaughlin blessed the gates and garden area, as well as two benches, one each in memory of Mark Dombroski ’17 and Anthony Penna ’19. Among the guests were Mark’s parents, Anthony’s parents, Mrs. Kristy Ambrogi, Jerry’s wife, and other friends and family. The blessing ceremony, which we have often celebrated on campus for a number of memorials and remembrances, is another Catholic Christian tradition that offers meaning and the assurance that those who have left us will be remembered and honored by the Archmere community.

Last Spring, our alumni, parents, and then freshmen, sophomores, and juniors responded to surveys that are helping us gather information to develop the Academy’s next strategic planning cycle. The responses were consistent and overall very favorable about the Archmere experience. The long-standing tradition of “academic excellence” was clearly valued, with “curriculum,” “academic challenge,” and “reputation,” garnering scores of 4.5 to 4.7 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent, from 343 students (100%) and 154 parent responses (42.8%).  While these responses certainly underscore the strong academic program of the Academy, we also heard from some students and parents that “school-life balance” could be improved.

Students can feel overwhelmed by their academic schedules, combined with their sports and extra-curricular schedules, let alone their outside-of-school commitments and family obligations. Our students want to be academically challenged, such that they take multiple honors-level or advanced placement courses at the same time. The amount of homework generated from these course loads is a persistent issue for some students and an intermittent issue for others. One possible explanation for the variety of experiences might be due to the fact that we customize students’ schedules to match their learning and development in core disciplines. While this can be an advantage, it also creates multiple schedules for students, who are often grouped together in a variety of ways, making it a challenge for a coordinated pacing of academic content across disciplines.

I have begun a new tradition – a monthly “Coffee and Conversation with the Headmaster” program. Open to all students, for the first meeting in September, approximately 15 students spent about 45-minutes in an open-ended discussion on a variety of topics of interest to them. I also asked them, based on the student survey responses, about their feelings around workload and their school-life balance. Most acknowledged that the academic program is challenging and that they have to manage a rigorous workload. They said that the secret to success at Archmere is time management and organization. They also inferred that students need to be strategic about what they choose to do and schedule. One student offered the perspective that the academic schedule is fine, but when adding to it sports and extracurriculars, it can become overwhelming at times, and that is why time management, organization, and making choices are crucial skills.

I am confident that these constructive conversations around curriculum will be helpful in developing strategic initiatives that will enhance an already strong program offering. Dialog between students, parents, teachers, and administrators will insure that our alumni will continue to report how well-prepared they were for college and what an exceptional experience they had at Archmere, embracing revered traditions and helping to create new ones.

The Joy of Being Hopeful

We are still in the Easter Season and the Gospel readings for daily Mass recount Jesus’ appearance and conversation with the disciples after his resurrection. The account that is most compelling for me is Luke’s Gospel (24:35-48), proclaimed on the Third Sunday of Easter, in which Jesus says to them, “’Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.”

When we think about death or experience the loss of someone we love, I am sure that all of us have different thoughts about what life after death is like. Is the resurrection a metaphor for just some biological change that happens – the stuff of our bodies deteriorates and the energy within us becomes a part of some universal energy that we like to call “God?” Did Jesus really eat with the disciples after his resurrection; he was not a “ghost,” and yet he would not need food for sustenance? Is the account literal or symbolic, or did Jesus eat before them to prove that he was present to them in body and spirit? There is much theological conversation about the interpretation of this Gospel account, but for me, it provides certain hope that life after death will be rich and full, as dimensional and dynamic as our current experience, but without the worries and fears that plague us. That gives me “hope,” and the strength to manage through the rough times, the uncertainties, and let go of the things I sometimes try to control consciously or unconsciously.

Our school community has experienced untimely and tragic loss twice this school year with the passing of Anthony Penna ’19 and Mark Dombroski ’17. So many emotions and feelings, questions and doubts, acts of kindness and compassion, examples of faith and love have been a part of these days at Archmere. Thank you to all the members of the Archmere community for “being there” for our students, our families, and for each other.

Some years ago, a good friend of mine who eventually passed away from brain cancer, gave me the “Serenity Prayer” when I was going through a career transition that was challenging. My career challenges did not nearly compare to her physical challenges, I am embarrassed to say. But she lived the first four lines of the prayer so well, that the words, written on a small hanging scroll that I kept on my desk, became very real and meaningful to me. I found the prayer to be a helpful reminder of my limitations, the vastness of creation, and the discernment I was to go through to know what God was calling me to do with my life.

In a few weeks, our seniors will graduate, and now they are making important college decisions. The Class of 2022 is ready to begin the Archmere journey starting with orientation in May. My prayer for these students in transition, as well as all of our students and graduates making decisions and going through transitions, is that they know the joy of being hopeful, because of their faith in God and in God’s loving plan for them – a plan that includes the Easter message of resurrection and new life. My hope is that this Easter Season has brought you peace, renewal of spirit, and many opportunities to relax and enjoy precious time with family and friends!

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Season of Renewal

We are entering Holy Week in the Catholic Church beginning with Palm Sunday on March 25. This year, Easter is arriving earlier in the calendar, and the recent series of cold, wet, and snowy weather events make it a challenge to “think Spring,” with all its promise of new life.

As a school community, we have also been faced with a greater challenge, learning about the disappearance and eventually the untimely death of Mark Dombroski, a recent Class of 2017 graduate, who died while on a trip with the Saint Joseph’s University rugby team to Bermuda. Missing for more than day, students and staff prayed after school on Monday in the Oratory for Mark’s safe return. Shortly after, those prayers were changed to ones of acceptance and of strengthening our faith as the student body, faculty, and staff celebrated a Memorial Mass for Mark on Tuesday morning. We continue to pray for Mark and his family.

These sad events of the last week test our faith just before we celebrate the events that are the very core of our belief – the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the life of Christ, where would we be? While it is hard to accept the passing away of those we love and cherish, there is some comfort in the belief that they are now sharing in the promise of the resurrection; and, in our human understanding, we know and believe that they continue to live in spirit, free from the hardships and difficulties of this world. Nevertheless, the challenge for us is to understand why a young person with such promise and goodness would be taken from us so tragically. And perhaps there is no reasonable explanation, other than to rely on our faith and on each other to work through our grief and pain, so that one day we can find comfort and acceptance.

Just a few months ago, we experienced the untimely passing of Anthony Penna ’19, another young man who had a whole life before him. We continue to pray for his family and for those whom he touched in this life, especially those whose lives were changed by receiving his organs. We know that we will never forget Anthony or Mark, but, as time passes, perhaps we will see the small miracles that come from these tragic events.

Next week is the Triduum – a celebration that moves from a close gathering of friends for a meal, through the suffering and death of one who is dearly loved, to a reunion beyond imagination. Our faith tells us that someday we will also be on that journey, similar to the one that Mark and Anthony have experienced, and now will celebrate an Easter like they have never celebrated before. Through all of these challenging moments of the year, the Archmere community has become stronger in faith, more grateful for the love and concern we have for one another, and more compassionate for those in need of our presence and prayers.

May you know the hope and joy of the resurrection this Easter and throughout the year, especially during the most challenging times.