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A Day in the Life of St. Lawrence Student William Mattes
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By Tracy Rusch
Feet scurry into the chapel hallway. Schoolbags line the walls, sitting on the floor below coats hanging from hooks. The boys exchange “Good mornings” as they file into the chapel before Friday morning Mass at 7:25. Many St. Lawrence Seminary High School students wipe sleep from their eyes as yawns escape their mouths, but the tenor and baritone sounds of 200 male voices joining in prayer and song seem to tell a different story.
While William Mattes, 18, a senior at St. Lawrence, said he’s not a morning person, Friday morning Mass is one of the reasons he wanted to attend the high school after he came for a weekend visit in eighth grade.
“It’s Friday morning so we’re all a little tired, but for the most part it’s 200 guys singing, I mean, how often do you hear that?” Mattes said in an interview with your Catholic Herald, describing the difference he sees in the liveliness of the many voices compared to a single person singing at Sunday Mass.
Besides the Masses, Mattes said the diversity, academic challenge and the atmosphere drew him to the school. “It’s hard to describe – I don’t know if you felt it maybe, but it’s just a different atmosphere and I really liked the atmosphere. I felt like I could thrive off the atmosphere,” he said.
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
The atmosphere of the residential school where Mattes has spent the last four years is different from Ashland, his home city on the shore of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. “I kind of wanted to come to a place where everyone gets along, even though there’s different races,” he said.
The boys, wearing collared shirts and khakis or dress pants, stood in front of perfectly aligned wooden chairs, and exchanged hugs instead of handshakes as a sign of peace during one of three weekly Masses they attend. Wednesday is the St. Lawrence community Mass, or what Mattes called the “brothers’ Mass.” The Friday Mass is for students, staff and benefactors and Sunday is when families can attend Mass with the young men.
After Mass, the students leave the chapel built to imitate the story of how St. Francis entered the cave as a boy and came out with a different view of the world, described Mattes. The arches and the structure of the chapel building is supposed to model that “because we’re just a bunch of boys coming in and then, hopefully, when (we leave) we see the world differently,” he said, able to share the history of each building on the St. Lawrence grounds, part of the school’s curriculum.
They say “hi” when they’re passing each other on the sidewalk in between the buildings that make up the campus. They open doors for each other. Teachers and students alike greet each other by name, accomplished with the help of the freshmen “name quiz” that students take within the first weeks of each school year where they write the first and last names of the freshmen next to their pictures.
SOCIAL SKILLS PART OF THE CURRICULUM
According to Mattes, Capuchin Fr. Dennis Druggan, rector of St. Lawrence, instituted the social skills program, modeled after Boys Town, learning things like how to greet others, introduce themselves, eat properly and respectfully disagree with a teacher.
Mattes also explained that students are divided into fraternities or groups of about 12, three boys from each grade level. Senior students are paired with freshmen students, with whom they sit at breakfast and dinners, to help them through life at St. Lawrence.
Mattes plays that role for 15 year old freshman Jose Uriel Diaz de Leon, who said Mattes guided him through algebra problems when he didn’t understand, and offered him guidance when he had to take five tests.
“He told me just to take them one by one and I ended up getting good scores,” the freshman said.
De Leon said Mattes is a good person with one of the best personalities in the school. “You could describe him as a hero, “ he said.
CLASSES BEGIN WITH PRAYER
When the bell sounded throughout the Laurentianum, the four-story building where most classes are held, David Bartel, Mattes’ calculus teacher, asked students to begin class in the basement with a prayer, with all reciting the Glory Be together afterward.
Bartel asked the students to work through three questions with him on the board before allowing questions and laughter to lighten up the dense subject matter. Mattes answered questions aloud along with the other seven students in his class, stopping once to quietly explain an equation to a student seated nearby.
After class, Mattes and others hike up the winding and historic staircase to the fourth floor for biology with Dennis Holm, where one student begins class by reading a passage from “Men of the Bible.” Like calculus, the class is quiet when the bell rings and Holm has the floor. Mattes craned his neck to see the board over the student in front of him, and took notes on respiration, before he and classmates headed to the lab down the hall to conduct an experiment. Lunchtime followed with a meal prayer.
Between classes, Mattes isn’t texting friends or talking on a cell phone, because they’re not allowed. Instead, he talked to other students, which helps with friendship building on campus, as he made his way to his class on social problems with Capuchin Fr. Gary Wegner.
Music played in the background as Mattes walked into Fr. Wegner’s classroom. Mattes talked with students until the bell rang and the usual silence followed so class could begin. After reciting the Prayer of St. Francis, Mattes and his classmates pushed their desks into small groups and discussed the books they were reading that covered topics on social issues.
TEACHER BELIEVES HE’S SHAPING FUTURES
Fr. Wegner, in his 18th year of teaching at St. Lawrence, said several things kept him at a school where he thought he would stay to finish his one-year commitment in 1992.
“The longer I was here, the more I’ve come to believe in what we’re trying to accomplish. In a parish ministry you can touch lots of people in good ways. Here, I hope we connect with smaller groups and positively and profoundly impact them for their future,” he said.
When he first came to the school, after serving as associate pastor in a Latino community in Chicago, Fr. Wegner thought his world was going to get smaller, but in some ways it got larger due to the international student body.
Fr. Wegner said the community at St. Lawrence, formed around the vision of service, is what makes the school unique, as well as being one of the rare residential schools in the Midwest, fully Catholic and having a full liturgical life with students like Mattes who are interested in learning. From a teaching standpoint, Fr. Wegner said Mattes achieves good grades, but as a by-product of his learning and curiosity – a curiosity that is fundamental to being a good student. Mattes is what Fr. Wegner said he wanted in a student.
HOMEWORK IS NOT AN OPTION
Mattes took his turn discussing the book he’d been reading, “Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse,” with three other boys in his group’s cluster of desks at the front of Fr. Wegner’s room, and interjected comments about his classmates’ books. Each student’s homework sheet had been filed out for class, something that is quite common for students at St. Lawrence.
“The students actually do the homework. I mean it’s expected of them and we work hard freshmen and sophomore year to get them to learn how to do homework” Bartel said, explaining that by the time junior and senior years come, there’s not longer a concern.
Bartel also said teachers from other schools, who observed his class years ago commented on the way the students participate, respond, ask questions and get involved, also evident during Fr. Wegner’s class with the in-depth small group discussions that lasted the duration of the time that Fr. Wegner gave for group discussion. Mattes and his classmates listened to each other intently, took notes and never let the conversation wander to weekend plans or upcoming sporting events.
At the bell, Mattes made his way to religion class with Capuchin Br. Doug Bode, where he sat in the front row. A crucifix hung on the wall, the same as in his calculus, biology and English classrooms. They reviewed church history and discussed the upcoming test. When the boys’ talking reached a low hum in the classroom, Br. Bode would say “gentlemen,” and silence immediately followed. After the class watched a video on modern day Trappists, Mattes headed to his English class, the last of the day with Lou Wappel, where he would be taking a test.
“From talking with other English teachers it seems like we are able to give them a whole lot of content that they just don’t have time for in other schools,” Wappel said, explaining that they have reading clubs and sign-up sheets to talk to him about the books they’re reading, and the student actually use them.
Wappel said he reason he likes teaching at St. Lawrence is because he gets 45 minutes of teaching, without having to waste time on roll call and other things that might happen at other schools.
“When that bell rang earlier, you saw, we turned off the video and we prayed and we’re going to go for 45 minutes and so I think the fact that I can teach more in-depth topics, I like that,” Wappel said of Mattes’ class and the overall St. Lawrence classroom culture.
“The culture is to try your best with sports, try your best with academics, and most of the kids encourage each other to accomplish this,” he said explaining that he could walk out of the classroom while they were taking their tests with the confidence that they would be truthful and behave.
DAY NOT OVER WHEN LAST BELL RINGS
Mattes finished his test with plenty of time to begin double-checking his answers, unsure of only a few. After class, Mattes’ day, much like other students who attend St. Lawrence, wasn’t over. Track practice would follow. He also plays soccer and basketball during their respective seasons.
On a typical Friday night, Mattes may begin working on a paper, spend time with friends or head to the gym. Some Fridays’ Mattes gives witness talks where a senior student sits with potential students participating in the same weekend visit he made years ago; he does the same for the parents of those boys but on a panel with one person from each grade level.
“On Saturday, I usually get up around 8:30, and then I do Breakfast Club which is part of the National Honor Society, so I help tutor people who are having some academic difficulties,” said Mattes who then heads to lunch before work crew begins, the twice-a-week, two hour “job” when he works in the information office. Each student is assigned to specific campus-wide tasks throughout the school year.
Even though Mattes said he didn’t go to a ‘normal’ high school, he wouldn’t trade his experiences at St. Lawrence. At the school where water from a squirt gun may wake someone up who sleeps in after the morning bell, Mattes feels prepared to move on to the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN after graduation.
“The single greatest cause of Atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyles and that is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable,” said Mattes, quoting the band DC Talk from memory. “In a lot of ways it’s the message of this school – learn the Gospel, now live it every day.”