Eighth graders at Julie Billiart Akron sat patiently in the school chapel on Oct. 2 awaiting a visit from Bishop Edward Malesic who was coming to bless the school chapel.
The blessing was a short ceremony with a few words from the bishop, a Scripture reading by Father John Valencheck, pastor of nearby St. Sebastian Parish, sprinkling of holy water and a blessing.
“This chapel is a holy space,” the bishop told the students. “It’s a safe space where you can come and talk to God.”
(See photo gallery above.)
He encouraged the students not to lose their “young, playful spirit,” saying, “We should all be more like you. Always be fresh and new, especially when God sends a surprise your way.”
The bishop told the students the chapel was a special place dedicated to God that they can visit when they want to talk to him.
He used holy water to sprinkle the space and then invited one of the students to sprinkle him with holy water.
“Even I need that once in a while,” he quipped.
After the brief ceremony, he invited students to ask him a few questions. They wanted to know what he did as bishop. He told them he keeps busy visiting parishes and schools throughout the diocese, attending lots of meetings and events, celebrating Masses and other things.
They also asked how long he’s been in Cleveland.
“Three years,” he said, telling them he grew up in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Harrisburg, serving there until he was appointed bishop of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Bishop Malesic said he had been a biology major in college before following his call to the priesthood.
“How do you become a bishop?” one student asked.
The bishop outlined the process briefly, noting his name was suggested and placed on a list and when there was an open position, Pope Francis chose him to fill it.
The ceremony concluded with the students reciting the St. Julie Billiart Prayer.
Afterward, the bishop stopped by a classroom to greet students. He also was introduced to one of their hermit crabs.
“We are a very welcoming school,” said Sister Pat Garrahan, SND. “Everyone is welcomed and loved here.
She noted the school welcomes students with a variety of learning differences. Many JB students have autism, anxiety, ADHD, dyslexia and other learning difficulties. Julie Billiart officials said students find success at the school because their potential is celebrated, their curiosity is nurtured and teaching is customized to their unique learning styles. Students become empowered at JB schools, they added.
Julie Billiart Schools is a network of four private, coeducational day schools serving students in grades K-8 with learning differences. The students come from more than 40 school districts in Northeast Ohio. All teachers are certified intervention specialists. There are onsite board certified behavior analysts, speech therapists, occupational therapists, art therapists and music therapists who supplement academics with therapeutic support.
Lannie Davis-Frecker, a former teacher at the JB Lyndhurst campus, is president/CEO of the network. Nick Russo, managing director, PNC Erieview Capital, is the board chair of Julie Billiart Schools.
Planning for the JB Akron campus began in 2014. In 2016, Julie Billiart Schools purchased the former Christ United Methodist Church near St. Sebastian Parish. As a ministry of St. Sebastian Parish, Julie Billiart School Akron operates independently of the parish and its day school but has received guidance and direction from the church and its parishioners. St. Sebastian provides support for monthly Mass and the sacraments while the schools often share resources and have organized group learning activities together.
JB Akron opened in 2017 and has grown consistently, adding grade levels until it reached the full K-8 model. Its first eighth grade class graduated in 2020.
The Julie Billiart network dates to 1954, when the Sisters of Notre Dame began offering education for students in grades K-8 with unique academic, social and emotional needs. Sister Garrahan said these students were not being served by the public schools and the sisters saw a need. As the public schools expanded to serve many of these students, the sisters began to fil other educational gaps.
The original campus, which quickly was outgrown, was at Notre Dame Academy on Ansel Road in Cleveland. In 1958, JB relocated to the Arter mansion in Lyndhurst. By the 1970s, increased enrollment led to expansions for a gymnasium and new classrooms. A 16,000-square-foot addition was built in 2006.
In 2017, the Julie Billiart Schools Network was formed with plans to serve up to 700 students by 2025. The network includes campuses in Lyndhurst, Akron and Westlake. A fourth location in Brecksville, is scheduled to open in 2024.
The schools are named after St. Julie Billiart, who was born in France in 1751. She founded the Sisters of Notre Dame who cared for orphans and taught and educated teachers. The sisters operated schools for girls of all economic levels. St. Julie Billiart, who died in 1816, was canonized in 1969.
The Sisters of Notre Dame traveled to the United States in 1840 and eventually settled in Cleveland, where they continue their ministry.