Archdiocesan Catholic school students head back to class

WALPOLE -- At Blessed Sacrament School in Walpole, the new school year opened with prayer, a reading from the Gospel of Matthew... and jokes.

"Where do surfers get their education?" Principal Marilena Martucci asked the students gathered in the auditorium. "BOARDING school!"

Perhaps proving the benefits of a Catholic education, the students knew some of the punchlines before Martucci said them.

"Don't be afraid to laugh!" she said. "Don't hold it in!"

Sept. 5 marked the first day of class for many Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Boston. It was also Martucci's first day as principal of Blessed Sacrament. Like many of her students, she was nervous on her first day.

"I want to lead this incredible school with wonderful staff to be lifelong learners and faith-filled graduates," she said.

Martucci gave a warm, energetic greeting to every student she saw, popping into a sixth-grade classroom to ask everyone what they did over the summer.

"Good morning, middle school!" She said to students in the cafeteria. "I'm excited! Who's excited?"

Martucci has taught in Catholic schools for 23 years. She previously served as principal of St. Bridget School in Framingham.

"I am a product of Catholic education," she said, "and I love the community and dedication that I saw in Catholic schools. You weren't just a student, you were a person."

To her, the students are not only students but "disciples" in the making. As principal, she wants the school to grow not only in enrollment but in academic rigor.

"Catholicism is about love, and we love the children as they are," she said. "We love them for who they are because we know that they are made in God's image."

As pandemic-era restrictions fade into memory, Martucci is "still trying to figure out" students' needs as they recover from the upheaval that COVID brought into their lives.

"The nice thing about Catholic schools is that we do have smaller class sizes," she said, "so we're better able to recognize and identify when a student is struggling and needs help."

Case in point: Martucci and Assistant Principal Brian Cote were able to help a small group of students figure out how to open their lockers. Martucci, who hasn't had to open a locker since high school, could sympathize with the students' struggles.

"Who's gonna have the most organized locker?" She asked the students. "There's nothing better than an organized locker!"

Cote said that since the pandemic, enrollment at Blessed Sacrament has increased. In order to help students adjust to "normal" learning, Blessed Sacrament is developing programming to make sure that students' social and emotional needs are being met. He has observed that the pandemic created a lot of anxiety among children and forced them to do their socializing on screens rather than in real life.

"In a Catholic school," he said, "we consider the whole child -- academic, spiritual, emotional, and social."

"Kids need other kids," Martucci said, "and they need adults who believe in them and who love them and can meet them where they are."

Cote said Blessed Sacrament is also doing more to celebrate its Catholic identity. For the first time, each school day will begin with Bible readings and a recitation of the school's mission statement.

Cote has also taken the time to help Martucci get acquainted with Blessed Sacrament and what makes it unique from other schools in the archdiocese.

"We're off to a great start," he said. "I've been supporting her, and we work very well together."