Hartford’s Cathedral of St. Joseph was the venue for West Hartford’s Northwest Catholic High School’s 55th Commencement.
By Dexter McCann
“Tonight you become members of a very special family – an unbroken chain of 8,000 men and women that have graduated from this very cathedral for 55 years.”
Those were the words of Northwest Catholic’s President, Christian J. Cashman, as he opened the proceedings for graduation at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. The idea of the Northwest Class of ’19 as a family was reiterated throughout the night’s speeches, which came from Salutatorian Matthew J. Villani, Valedictorian Michael N. Stamm, and Graduation Speaker Molly Rees Gavin.
Villani, who spoke first, reflected on his decision to choose Northwest, as well as many of the experiences he had as a Lion. He talked of life changing experiences that he shared with his fellow classmates, and of passions he uncovered during his time in school, one being music.
Villani said he found “somewhere I belonged” when he walked in his first musical audition, and spoke for all the graduates when he said passions, which all students shared, made Northwest more than just a school – it made it a home.
“It [Northwest Catholic] became more than just our school, a place of stress, sweat, and tears … but a home where we are encouraged to learn, excel, and were supported to celebrate our faith.”
He concluded by returning to the idea of the Northwest Class as a family.
“Remember that we are forever connected by a single thread. And, as we go on finding places where we belong, let’s show the world what we’re truly made of. Let’s use our talents to spread peace, love, Northwest Catholic pride, and service to our communities … Thank you Northwest Catholic!” concluded Villani.
Following Villani’s speech, a brief prayer service was conducted. That was followed by the presentation of the graduates by academic dean Christopher D. Stuck, and the awarding of diplomas to the Northwest Catholic Class of ‘19.
Molly Rees Gavin, the night’s keynote graduation speaker, was the next to offer remarks. Gavin was part of the third graduating class from Northwest Catholic in 1967, and proceeded to receive a B.A. from the University of Saint Joseph and a M.S.W. from Rutgers University. She is now the president of Connecticut Community Care, and was honored in 1996 as the Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers, Connecticut Chapter.
Her career path was influenced by the Adopt-a-Grandparent program, which she participated in as a Northwest student. Following that experience, she was inspired to become a social worker.
Her speech was a call to action for all the graduates, and opened with an adage from a Muslim poet in the 14th century, in which a sage drops keys to a set of “beautiful, rowdy prisoners,” imprisoned by “small men.”
Before elaborating on the metaphor of the keys, Gavin recalled her own graduation, in the midst of the Vietnam war, and remembered it, as, historically, the most tumultuous and uncertain time she had witnessed. She compared that situation to the present day, and urged the graduates to go out into the world and make a difference.
“This is a world that is in desperate need of your energy, your commitment, your smarts, and your compassion… the world needs you.”
To make the world a better place, according to Gavin, the graduates must share keys of empowerment and hope to those in need, just as the sage in the old adage did. So as not to forget this duty, Gavin urged the graduates to take a physical token as a constant reminder of what must be done.
“When you eventually return home tonight, I’m asking you to find an old key in your house or apartment. Put it on your current key ring … and keep it with you forever. That’s your talisman, your symbol, every day, as a reminder that you’re using your keys to empower others.”
Gavin continued by asserting that those keys of empowerment could be given to others in any profession, and in any capacity. She concluded by returning the halls of Northwest Catholic, and gave one last call to action.
“Your parents, teachers, clergy … all gave you the keys to Northwest Catholic. You now stand here ready to give that key to others.”
Stamn, the valedictorian, was the final speaker of the night. While he noted that the valedictorian is usually supposed to give a farewell speech, Stamn instead termed his words as a “hello to a new horizon and a new beginning outside of the familiar walls of Northwest Catholic.”
Stamn, referencing the school mascot, drew comparisons between the Northwest Class of ‘19 and the attributes of a lion, noting that lions move in prides formed of family and friends, much like the Northwest students. He also noted that, much like a lion pride, the Northwest family is greater than the sum of its parts, and recalled several anecdotes to prove his point.
“At the girl’s final basketball game against Canton, I will always remember watching one of the Canton players get knocked down and seeing a Northwest Catholic athlete be the first to offer her a hand to get them back up. And I will always remember how our track athletes would congratulate another runner even if they edged them at the finish line.
“We are used to being a part of something bigger than ourselves, and I challenge each person in this room to always keep that trait with you in your future campus, workplace, or anywhere else,” Stamn added.
Stamn concluded with a quote made famous by the great Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Following Stamn’s words, the Graduates walked outside the cathedral to the tune of Northwest Catholic’s alma mater, performed by the school band and orchestra. Outside, they celebrated their achievements with family and friends, a fitting end to a graduation that focused so much on the ideals and values of the Northwest Catholic family.
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