Notre Dame Catholic Preparatory cheerleaders applaud Catholic tuition scholarship organizations during the Catholic Schools Week Rally Jan. 30 at the Arizona Capitol (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Notre Dame Catholic Preparatory cheerleaders applaud Catholic tuition scholarship organizations during the Catholic Schools Week Rally Jan. 30 at the Arizona Capitol (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Warmer weather than in recent years sent nearly 1,000 students from across Arizona to a lunchtime rally at the state Capitol Jan. 30.

The gathering was in celebration of National Appreciation Day for Catholic Schools, which is a standard part of Catholic Schools Week festivities for local students. It draws largely student council leaders, teachers, parents, legislators, and this year all four bishops serving dioceses in Arizona eager to celebrate Catholic education and school choice. This also marked the first time that donors and supporters had a catered VIP lunch on site and special seating.

“It was really a chance to salute the work we’re doing with the schools and salute our donors who make it all possible,” Paul Mulligan, executive director of Catholic Education Arizona told The Catholic Sun.

The need-based tuition organization raises roughly $12 million annually for students across the diocese. He noted partnerships with H&R Block and National Bank of Arizona, in particular. Partnering with the tax preparer last year created another chance to tell taxpayers about the no-cost tax credit. That netted enough donations-turned-scholarships to put 92 students in Catholic school.

Enrollment could climb even higher if taxpayers take advantage of a matching grant announced during the rally. Pete Hill, executive vice president of National Bank of Arizona and a local Catholic, offered $250,000 in corporate matching gifts if taxpayers take advantage of the individual tax credit as a first-time donor. The match runs through April 15 or when funds are used.

Students who camped out on the Capitol Lawn during lunch brought all kind of signs showing their support of the tuition tax credit. They served as a giant “thank you” card for donors and legislators. A few of them, including President of the Senate Andy Biggs, and Speaker of the House Andy Tobin gave brief remarks. Tobin labeled Arizona’s school choice legislation “the very best” in the nation.

Doug Ducey, Arizona’s treasurer and a local Catholic school parent, also spoke.

School choice legislation affects an untold number of students. Three of them shared their story with the crowd. Some 60 percent of students at St. Michael’s Indian High School in the Diocese of Gallup can only attend with help from tuition tax credits.

It takes Dominique Allison, a sophomore at the school — which St. Katharine Drexel herself founded — one hour to get to the school of her choice each morning. That’s not the only family sacrifice in the Allison home though. Her mom rejected many great job offers just to allow the family to stay reasonably close to the Catholic high school that Allison said respects the Navajo culture and gives students confidence in their abilities.

Austin Weigel, a junior at Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler and a graduate of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe, had similar praises for Catholic education.

“You really do get the sense that you can do anything. Because of them I am here speaking,” Weigel said.

He went on to explain how he was somewhat shy as a freshman, but joined drama and made friends. As a result, his grades improved and he earned scholarships, which came in handy considering his dad lost his job before Weigel started his freshmen year.

“Your teachers are seeing you not only as athletes and students, but doctors, lawyers and aspiring engineers so that you can be leaders,” he said.

Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares, auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Phoenix, saw something else in the students.

“What do I see here?” Bishop Nevares said before leading opening prayer. “I see children of God — beautiful children of God.”

He called them all “sowers,” referring to the Gospel reading from the all-school liturgy earlier that day. Like in years past, the bishop also questioned whether he saw priests and religious sisters in the crowd and asked them to raise their hands. Many young students from St. Matthew responded to the call.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, bishop of Phoenix, briefly addressed students. He referenced the Year of Faith and said that those who believe in something want to grow in understanding so they can further spread and defend it.

“When you live your faith, when you adore our Lord like we just did at Mass, you’re making a major contribution to our world,” the bishop said.