By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — There once was a time, not so long ago, when the entire combined enrollments of both Notre Dame de Sion schools in Kansas City could have fit into a medium-sized church.
Not any more.
On Jan. 20, Founder’s Day to the religious order that established the schools in Kansas City in 1912, the 403 students of Notre Dame de Sion High School and the 302 students of the Notre Dame de Sion Lower School came together, filling the floor and every bleacher at the lower school’s seven-year-old gym and activities center in Midtown for Mass to kick off a centennial celebration of Sion education.
It marked the first time since the high school campus moved to south Kansas City in 1962 that all students from both campuses had come together.
Before the Mass celebrated by Jesuit Father Luke Byrne of the nearby Rockhurst University community, Sion fifth-graders re-enacted on stage the Jan. 20, 1842, apparition of Mary to Alphonse Ratisbonne — until that moment, a professed non-believer — that led to the founding of the religious order that would dedicate itself to interfaith understanding, and make that its special charism in the education of young people in a Sion system that would span the globe.
Ratisbonne, born into a wealthy Jewish family, became angry at all religion when his brother Theodore converted to Christianity and became a priest.
On a visit to Italy, a mutual friend of the two brothers gave Alphonse a Miraculous Medal, which he begrudgingly wore, and gave him a copy of the Memorare, which he begrudgingly prayed.
On Jan. 20, 1842, Mary appeared to Ratisbonne in a vision that caused him not only to convert to Catholicism, but to become a Jesuit priest and later, with his brother, to establish a monastery in Old Jerusalem for the new order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion.
And just 70 years later, the Sion sisters would come to Kansas City.
The miracle of Sion, said longtime Sion educator Kay Walkup in a reflection before the assembled students, was not only that the sisters found their way to Kansas City.
“Somehow, in some way, every one of us found our way to Sion,” Walkup said.
“As we speak, we are being shaped by this school,” she said. “For the younger members of our community, your parents probably chose this school for you. The middle and high schoolers among us perhaps helped make the decision to go to Sion. Our reputation for academic excellence probably played a large part in your family’s decision.”
But high academic standards are just one part of the Sion experience, Walkup told the students. Sion also teaches its students to care.
“Simple acts of loving kindness have been at the heart of what we are about each day at Sion,” she said.
“The vision of Sion’s founder was that Sion students, teachers and staff would have hearts bigger than the world, that we would learn to love not only the friend but the stranger as well,” Walkup said.
“God is love. And it is upon those three words that Sion has been built for the last 100 years where students learn to love God, love themselves and love their neighbor,” she said.
Walkup quoted Father Theodore Ratisbonne: “Yes, Sion is a family. It is not a collection of souls which come from every direction and have no link with each other . . . The spirit of Sion is a spirit of expansive charity which leads us to communicate willingly to others what we possess in our own family circle.”
It is the love learned at Sion that its alumni extend to the world, Walkup said.
“We are citizens of a global society and our neighbors, both in Kansas City and those who live on the opposite side of the earth, are all people who, like us, were created in the image of God,” Walkup said.
“When our middle schoolers deliver meals to the homeless through Project Uplift, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they help build up the beloved community,” she said.
“When our high schools paint fingernails and bake cookies at Hospice House, they help build up the beloved community,” Walkup said.
“On those days when we come to school or work dispirited, sad, unable to see the sun shine, and our friends, teachers and colleagues warm us with their hugs, their smiles, their encouraging words — when they love and serve as the face of God for us, they are helping build the beloved community,” she said.
And to the Sisters of Sion who established the school in Kansas City a century ago, Walkup simply said, “Thanks.”
“They arrived here with almost no money, nowhere to live, and no school,” she said. “Through faith, hope and love, they became the embodiment of Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City, and all of us are being shaped by their vision.
“Today we celebrate 100 years of love,” Walkup said. “May you all have hearts larger than the world.”