By ALISSA SCOTT
Recorder News Staff
Eighteen eighth graders celebrated their last Mass as students Thursday night as they turned their tassels and graduated from St. Mary's Institute.
"Pope Francis recently Tweeted," SMI Principal Giovanni Virgiglio, Jr. said, standing in front of his students. "And, yes, the Pope is on Twitter. If you're not following him, follow him. Pope Francis Tweeted, 'Dear young people, the Church expects great things of you and your generosity. Don't be afraid to aim high.' Graduates, let us heed Pope Francis' advice."
Virgiglio, now addressing the families and teachers of the graduates, said he had once read that students are like kites.
"You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground," Virgiglio said. "You run with them until you're breathless. They crash. They hit the rooftop. You patch and comfort, adjust and teach them. Finally, they're airborne."
Led by SMI music teacher, Rachelle Cotugno, a choir performed songs between prayers and Bible readings.
Graduates knelt, prayed, sang and hugged their neighbor as their principal and pastor congratulated their achievements and wished the best for their futures.
The Rev. John Medwid, pastor of St. Mary's Church, told the graduates about a group of English young adults who intertwined their faith with their culture. He then challenged them to do the same, and to continue with their faith once they begin their high school career.
"Young people, I challenge you today, to make a connection with your faith and the culture in which you live...and to see the relevance and importance of your faith," Medwid said.
Valedictorian Alexis Tirado and Salutatorian Olivia Mautone addressed their classmates as they reminisced about memories and recounted their struggles, from making friends to learning new skills.
"I'm happy, but sad," Tirado said, choking back tears after the ceremony. "It's amazing. I'm flabbergasted."
Tirado was awarded a gold medal as valedictorian, but also accepted an Outstanding Academic Excellence recognition, an award presented to a top female student excelling in math and science from the Amsterdam-Gloversville-Johnstown American Association of University Women and a certificate for having perfect attendance this past academic year.
Other students were recognized for their academic achievements, creative abilities and their compassion, character and courageousness expressed both in and outside the classroom.
Virgiglio said he was especially proud of this group.
"They're a remarkable class," Virgiglio said. "Every St. Mary's class is special and they all are special in their own unique way, but this group has left a lasting impression. I think back to the days when we suffered a historic water main leak inside our building and experience a lot of flooding."
Instead of taking the day off like offered, Virgiglio said, the students came in, squeegeed floors and mended carpets, "just so they could help out."
Graduate Timothy Kline's cousin Brian Bubniak said it went by fast.
"The years just flew by with him," Bubniak said. "We're very proud of him and we're looking forward to see him start a new chapter."
Kline, who gave a speech during graduation, said he's excited to start high school in the fall and hopes to get involved with soccer.
Medwid told the students that, while gripping their diploma is the end result they've all been waiting for, it means much more than the end.
"The diploma is a symbol," Medwid said. "It's only a symbol of the journey you've been on. It's the journey that's most important of all."