Students participating in the Faith In Action Team (FIAT) at St. Louis de France School in Lowell decorate cards to include with bags of food given out in the school's annual Thanksgiving food drive. Pilot photo/courtesy Jessica Smith, St. Louis de France School
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LOWELL -- As Vina Troianello prepared for her third year as principal of St. Louis de France School, the faculty agreed that they wanted to "really look at" the school's Catholic identity.
St. Louis de France School was founded in 1907 by the Sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to serve the children of French-Canadian immigrants seeking employment in Lowell's textile industries. Today, according to Troianello, about 55 percent of students at St. Louis belong to minority groups.
"It's now changed because we're reflective of the city of Lowell," Troianello said, speaking to the Pilot on Oct. 29.
Today, she said, "What we're finding is that a lot of our children aren't Catholic but they very much want a Christian-valued education."
"We were really looking for ways to strengthen our Catholic identity here at St. Louis," Jessica Smith, who teaches middle-school Spanish and religion, told the Pilot on Nov. 2.
Part of that effort is reviving the school's Faith In Action Team, or FIAT. This extracurricular group existed before Troianello became the principal, but has now begun to flourish under the leadership of Smith, second-grade teacher Kathy LaBrecque, and pre-K4 teacher Beth DaCunha.
The FIAT curriculum designed by Smith, LaBrecque and DaCunha is centered on the "fruits of the Spirit" identified by St. Paul in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Each month of the school year is dedicated to a particular "fruit." The FIAT teachers and students meet at least once a month to discuss what they can do to promote the upcoming month's virtue in their community.
Smith described the FIAT as "mostly service-centered" and said she tries to teach students that "faith without works is dead," paraphrasing James 2:17. To this end, the team performs service projects that reflect the current month's theme.
The FIAT plans to decorate cards with pictures and scripture verses reflecting November's theme of "peace" to include in bags of food when the school holds its annual Thanksgiving food drive. This winter, Smith hopes to collect shampoo, deodorant, and other cosmetics for Catie's Closet, a local organization that provides schools with clothing and toiletries for students in need.
The FIAT's activities also impact the rest of the student body. Every month, at the school liturgy, the students in the FIAT perform a short skit written by Smith, LaBrecque and DaCunha to introduce the coming month's theme.
"We did this because it was a way of actively demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit to all of the kids," Smith said, adding that the students range from 15 to as young as the two- and three-year-olds enrolled in the school's new day care program. Smith said rather than simply telling students what the fruits of the spirit are in theory, the skits show them what "the fruits of the spirit look like when they're in action."
At the same liturgy, the FIAT also recognizes one student in each grade nominated by their teacher as an example of someone who embodies the previous month's theme. Each of these students receives a certificate and has their photograph printed in the local newspaper, the Lowell Sun.
"It shows the other students what to strive for," Smith said.
Now in the third month of the school year, Smith said students are responding "really well" to the program.
"At first, I think, the kids weren't sure about the skits, but once the first skit was shown after Mass it was like all of the Faith In Action kids were approaching me and saying 'Can I do the skit next month?' or kids who weren't even on the Faith In Action Team were approaching me and saying, 'Can I still join?'" Smith said.