Honrar al Padre Vince Coppola, C.S.C.
“¡Mira! ¡Es Padre Vince!” exclaimed second grader Athziry Rodriguez as she rounded the corner and beheld this year’s Día de los Muertos altar at Holy Cross School. She recognized the face of Fr. Vincent Coppola, C.S.C., as Padre Vince, the beloved pastor of Holy Cross Catholic School.
Athziry knew Fr. Vince from when she was just a “peque” (a term of endearment for pequeña, or little one) in the two-way Spanish immersion program that he helped initiate in 2017. Four years after starting in the program, Athziry spends 80 percent of her day learning to read, write, and calculate in Spanish. She focuses the rest of her day on learning science and social studies in English.
Holy Cross was founded in 1929 by the Congregation of Holy Cross to serve the rapidly growing, working-class Catholic community comprised largely of families of Polish, Irish, and Italian descent on the west side of the city of South Bend. Thanks in great part to the effort and creativity of the Sisters of Holy Cross, it thrived for decades as one of the largest and most vibrant Catholic learning communities in the region.
Like so many other Catholic schools in recent years it confronted the difficult challenge of population decline and changing demographics in surrounding neighborhoods. By 2016, enrollment hovered at 50 percent of capacity, with the steepest declines in the Pre-K and kindergarten classes. The school’s viability was teetering.
Thanks to Fr. Vince Coppola’s leadership, Holy Cross responded to the demographic imperative and financial instability with a creative vision for a multicultural school committed to developing bilingualism in all of its students while serving the needs of the school’s surrounding neighborhoods. Adding the two-way Spanish immersion program, and a complementary Spanish as a foreign language program for its existing K-8 traditional English program has transformed the school, increasing enrollment and supporting its diverse and deserving community in novel and authentically Catholic ways.
From the moment Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) teamed up to begin the initiative, Fr. Vince was the biggest cheerleader. Alongside Katy Lichon, Ph.D., and Luis Fraga, Ph.D., Fr. Vince presented a proposal to Bishop Rhoades asking for his blessing to begin the program, and he never looked back.
Since the inception of the immersion program, Holy Cross School has grown enrollment by 30 percent in four short years and celebrates a vibrant mission of faith, knowledge, language, and culture. As the school continued to grow, Fr. Vince grew right alongside the community. He ushered in a new era for an almost 100-year-old school as he learned and rehearsed Mass parts in Spanish and greeted countless children and families at the school doors every morning with a warm “Hola.” After serving the parish until 2018, Fr. Vince moved to New Jersey, and he passed away on Oct. 2. He is greatly missed.
Exemplifying Fr. Vince’s vision of a multilingual and multicultural learning community, Día de los Muertos altars can now be found all around Holy Cross School in October. An ancient Mexican tradition aligned with All Saint’s and All Souls' Day, on Día de los Muertos families throughout regions of Mexico celebrate the lives of their deceased ancestors. Many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans create beautiful altars that honor deceased loved ones with favorite foods, drinks, colors, photos, religious artifacts, flowers and traditional elements like calaveras (skeletons) and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Others might picnic in cemeteries near the beautifully decorated gravestones of loved ones.
Just below the stairs in the main hallway, the students honor Fr. Vince with an altar decorated with flowers, religious artifacts, photos, and their artwork.
“It’s so fitting that we honor Fr. Vince in this way,” said Annie Borjas, Holy Cross’ principal. “Padre Vince wanted our students to learn knowledge and faith, but also language and culture. He envisioned our young people as the bridge-builders of the future Church. He was a visionary and a magnificent priest.”
“With an altar, the children know that we’re honoring a person who died, a person that we love,” explains pre-K teacher Gina Robinson, who hails from Baja California, Mexico. Gina’s father, who died two years ago, was honored last year with an altar in her classroom. “The students are young, just starting school for the first time, but they do understand. They asked, ‘Did you cry when your dad died?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I also know that he’s fine and not sick anymore. I am happy because he is OK and God is taking care of him.’”
“My favorite photo is of Fr. Vince in his Elvis costume,” said Barb Echard, who teaches eighth grade. “I will never ever forget when he surprised my middle school students dressed as Elvis for Halloween. We all laughed until it hurt. That was Fr. Vince. Such a beautiful human being and priest.”