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Catholic schoolchildren’s flag comforts youngsters in New York

Catholic schoolchildren’s flag comforts youngsters in New York

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

By Larry Ciptak

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette – view online

It isn’t so much the giant American flag that is providing comfort to New York City schoolchildren affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. It’s the 428 little hands from suburban Pittsburgh that created it and left their prints on it.

Feeling powerless and looking for a way to express their pain and sorrow, the children at St. Philip School in Crafton created a flag from four queen-sized bed sheets, using their painted hands to create the stars and stripes — one child, one hand.

From a distance of 40 yards, the flag looks conventional. But when you walk up to it, you say, “Wow, this thing is made out of hands,” said Gary Klimek, a parent of two St. Philip pupils.

As the flag makes its rounds among New York parochial schools near Ground Zero, the children — some of whom lost family members during the assault — are instinctively drawn to it, looking for a handprint that matches their own, say administrators at the schools.

“When I saw the flag I said, ‘Wow! That’s cool!’ I thought I can’t believe they care for us all the way from Pittsburgh,” said John Nico, a sixth-grader at Immaculate Conception in Stony Point. “Now, that’s a flag worth fighting for.”

Sixth-grader Gabrielle Terranova said, “The flag gave me a sense of comfort in a very uncertain time. It also made me realize the bond we share with all Catholic schools in our country.”

Klimek came up with the idea four days after the attack, while talking with other parents of swimmers at Carlynton High School. “We said, ‘You know, we need to do something as a group. The kids feel like they need to do something.’ ”

Within a few days, PTG Vice President Debbie Blaich had organized a mass assembly line. Though they thought the construction would take two days, the flag was completed in less than three hours, said Sister Geri Marr, St. Philip principal.

“It was a prayer experience,” Sister Geri said. “The children were praying for those who were suffering because of the loss and anxiety of the whole event.”

She said the grades were staggered to mix small hands with larger ones, and all of the handprints overlap each other, showing unity.

The flag was originally to be sent to Battalion 9, Engine 89 and Rescue 5 of the Fire Department of New York. But PTG President Linda Klimek’s boss was in town from New York and saw the flag. He mentioned that his wife was a teacher at a Catholic school in New York City, so St. Philip decided to send the flag back with him.

St. Gregory School in Garnerville received the flag along with a scrapbook relating the history of the undertaking and including photos of the pupils making the flag. Disposable cameras were also sent so the New York schools could photograph their pupils with the flag for the children at St. Philip to see. A journal is also being passed around to record the children’s experience with the flag.

“We started out wanting to send the flag to say ‘We’re sorry,’ but something else happened with it. It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Sister Geri.

Soon, other parochial schools in the area learned of the flag and asked to share in the experience. Sister Geri said that altogether, 10 parochial schools will eventually participate.

Immaculate Conception was the second stop for the flag.

“It’s awesome,” said Principal Adele Pascucci. “The fact that somebody else cared what we were going through was a demonstration of faith in action. When a Catholic school reaches out to another, they’re living the faith they profess.”

When Pascucci was opening the flag, “it made me feel like the whole world was with us,” said seventh-grader Kristine Beckerle. “As the flag was unfolded, it got bigger and bigger, and so did my pride in this country.”

After two weeks at Immaculate Conception, the flag made its way to St. Peter in Haverstraw, which is inhabited by mostly Dominican families. On Nov. 12, 50 people from that area died in the Dominican Republic-bound plane that went down in Queens.

“We’ve had an awful lot to deal with since Sept. 11,” Principal Kathleen Dunn said the day after the crash. “The flag has helped our kids understand that everybody is going through these feelings of uncertainty and nervousness. When the planes fly overhead, the children’s heads immediately go up, and they say things like ‘That one looks a little low.’ We’re four miles from a nuclear power plant. It’s very scary.”

St. Peter has a lot of kids who “pooh-pooh” the American flag, Dunn said.

“A year or so ago, one of our teachers had the class write an essay on what the Pledge of Allegiance meant to them. One extremely bright boy wrote ‘It doesn’t mean a thing to me because this country is not good to my people.’ But since Sept. 11, they’ve changed their thinking. Now it’s ‘All for one, and one for all.’

“There’s a whole different kind of respect for any flag at this point, and of course this flag being handmade by all these children is special to them,” said Dunn. “The [St. Philip] flag has made the kids feel a closeness, like they can go up and touch the other children’s hands. It’s made them feel like we all share in this.”

The effort in Crafton isn’t stopping with the flag. Gary Klimek is creating a slideshow presentation of photos of the flag’s creation set to the music of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” He hopes to make copies available on compact disc to the children of St. Philip.

“At first we thought this was too much of an undertaking,” he said. “But after hanging the flag in church — even though people didn’t want the flag to go — we realized it had a greater purpose.”