Sep. 21—MITCHELL — John Paul II was one of the most popular and well-known popes in recent history, and one who possessed a special connection to the youth of the Catholic Church.
Because of that popularity and renown, his name has adorned John Paul II Elementary School in Mitchell since 2001. Now, after over two decades with his name used as the official moniker of the pre-K through grade 6 Catholic school, officials are announcing the name of the institution will change to St. John Paul II Elementary School to reflect the canonization of the former pope.
John Paul II officially became a saint 2014, so it was a good time for a change in name to reflect that.
"He is one of the most well-known saints of our time, quite honestly," said Nicole Fuhrer, director for the Mitchell Catholic Foundation.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who served as the Archbishop of Krakow, was elected pope in 1978 and chose the name John Paul II in honor of the late John Paul I. John Paul II was the first Slavic pope elected, and was the youngest elected pope in over a century.
During his 26 years as pope, he was known for traveling, visiting 129 countries, including seven visits to the United States. He died in 2005, was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2014, officially making him a saint, according to the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
There have been Catholic schools in Mitchell dating back to 1886, Fuhrer said, and local schools associated with the church have gone under several names since. John Paul II Elementary School formed after the consolidation of two previous elementary schools and an addition was added in 2001. John Paul II was pope at the time, and his active lifestyle and enjoyment of outdoor activities like skiing endeared him to young people.
It made sense to give the school, where young people spent their days learning, his name.
"The name came because he was the pope at the time, and he was known as the 'young people's pope.' He started World Youth Days, and traveled the country. And the youth just loved him, and he loved them," Fuhrer said. "Of course, that has continued."
There is even a personal connection between the former pope and the school. Father Andrew Swietochowski, a priest who served the local Mitchell parish from 2001 to 2010, knew John Paul II personally, having been confirmed and ordained by the former pope. Swietochowski remained close with John Paul II, attending his beatification and canonization in Rome.
Swietochowski, 68, remains in contact with the school to this day.
"He had a relationship with him throughout his life. So this school is so important to him, he has such a love for this school because it's named after his great friend," Fuhrer said.
The move to change the name came from local parish members Dick and Darlene Muth, who shared a close friendship with Swietochowski and began an endowment through the Mitchell Catholic Foundation for the school to distribute funds to the organization for improvements and school needs.
"(The Muths) love the school very much, and they have a particularly close relationship with Father Andrew, and they wanted to do something to honor him as well," Fuhrer said. "They decided they wanted the distribution this year to go toward renaming the school."
The official portion of the process to change the name is largely complete. There were some official channels to go through, but the process went smoothly, said Robin Cahoy, principal of John Paul II Elementary.
"We went through the diocese and the bishop, of course. The education committee discussed it, and then it went to the bishop, and he approved it right away. Honestly, it was a very quick process. Now it's just changing everything. Changing the signage, changing the letterhead. The logo," Cahoy said.
Officials are making arrangements to change the signage that adorns the school, and preparations have been made for new letterhead, although current stock will be used until it's gone so it doesn't go to waste. New T-shirts have been made, and school booster yard signs printed and put up at the start of the school year already have the new name.
It's an exciting time, but it will probably take some getting used to.
"Even when you answer the phone, it's really tough to remember that, because you want to make sure you are being the first ones to make that effort," Cahoy said.
Teachers are sharing details about the change with their students in the classroom, and Cahoy expects more lessons and discussions on the name will take place around Oct. 22, which is designated as the feast day for St. John Paul II. An official announcement on the name change came Wednesday evening, Sept. 21 at the school's annual Fall Festival, which was to feature a catered meal, pumpkin painting and other activities.
The event is a chance for families associated with the school to mingle and enjoy each other's company, but the public in general is invited, said Renee LeBrun, development director for St. John Paul II Elementary School, as it is now being referred to by staffers. It will also serve as a chance to thank the Muth family for their contributions.
"It's great to have a celebration of our school where families can get together and enjoy each other's company, and it's open to all of the community," LeBrun said. "It will be a fun evening. Maybe a little chilly, but throw on a sweatshirt and a smile and come on it."
School officials will gradually add the "St." portion of the new name to signage and letterhead, and school staffers will eventually get used to saying "Saint John Paul II Elementary" when they answer the phones. The 129 pre-kindergarten through grade 6 students will also have to get used to the name.
But one thing that is expected to remain the same is the school's dedication to education and connecting their students strongly to their faith. Like the events at the Fall Festival Wednesday, they're always willing to welcome new students and families to the school, Fuhrer said.
"New families are always welcome. All are welcome," Fuhrer said.