Gannon students help build house on spring break


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Gannon President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., far left, got his hands dirty at an alternative spring break service project in which students helped build the St. Joseph House of Faith in Action on W. Fourth Street in Erie. President Taylor is pictured with: Kathleen Cahill, assistant director of Service-Learning; and students Maddie Zurinsky, Cathy Wahlenmayer, Sam Desser, Kendra Walker, Mariam Alkhafaji and Caden Pabon. (Photo by Mary Solberg)



     As a young girl growing up in Baghdad in war-torn Iraq, Mariam Alkhafaji always wanted to help people. But the daily threat of death kept her from reaching out to others.

“When I was in Iraq, I didn’t have a chance to give to the community,” says Alkhafaji, now a sophomore biology/pre-med major at Erie’s Gannon University. “I wanted to help, but to be safe, I had to consider a lot of things. There were explosions, people getting kidnapped and getting killed.”

All of that changed when she and her family moved to Erie as immigrants in 2014. She graduated from the former East High School, and then enrolled at Gannon, where, she says, “they gave me the chance to do service.”

On her recent spring break, she opted to spend a week in Erie helping to build Gannon’s new St. Joseph House of Faith in Action. She served as a co-leader of the six-student alternative break service.

Located in the 400 block of W. Fourth Street, not far from the edge of Gannon’s downtown Erie campus, the one-story St. Joseph House is an outreach of the school’s Center for Social Concerns. Its purpose is to be a gathering place for neighborhood revitalization efforts by Our West Bayfront, a nonprofit neighborhood organization.


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Gannon sophomore Mariam Alkhafaji works on drywall at the St. Joseph House. (Photo by Mary Solberg)

From Feb. 25 to March 3, Alkhafaji joined five other Gannon students and several employees—including Gannon President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., and Erika Ramalho, director of community and government relations—installing insulation and hanging drywall.


“When I came to Erie I got a lot of support from the community, way more than I expected,” Alkhafaji says. “I want to give back.”

President Taylor called St. Joseph House “a home base for transformation.” Students, he says, could have done any number of other things on their spring break.

“It just goes to the heart of Gannon students and why they pick Gannon in the first place,” he says. “They know what our mission is and what drives us and what is important as part of education. It’s not just the classroom piece; it’s how do you transform students and transform the community in the process?”

Taylor, along with the students and other employees, spent every morning at St. Joseph House, getting their  hands dirty.

The students spent the rest of their days working and living out of nearby First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. They met community leaders, served the needy and learned about the urban neighborhoods in which Gannon is situated.

For Caden Pabon, a freshman political science major, St. Joseph House is “a symbol of hope.” He learned about adjacent neighborhoods affected by poverty.

“This experience has expanded my faith tremendously, and it’s expanded who I am as a person,” Pabon says. “I see myself coming back here to work on the house again.”

According to Ramalho, St. Joseph House could be completed by the end of May. Two Gannon employees are expected to live there rent-free so they can save money to buy their own homes in the neighborhood. Home ownership in the area is low.

The house features two private bedrooms, three full baths, a large kitchen, an office, a community room for social programs and an open space to accommodate 12 to 15 people for overnight stays.

“We are downtown because Gannon has always had a commitment to the community,” Ramalho says.

In conjunction with Our West Bayfront, Gannon has worked on the St. Joseph House with Building Systems Inc., which built the basic structure of the 2,400-square-foot home.


‘God still has a presence in this…’   Students, bishops stand against gun violence

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Luke School, inspired by an idea from student A.J. Reitz, held a prayer service Wednesday to remember the 17 victims of the recent school shooting in Florida.



Fourteen-year-old A.J. Reitz of Erie wanted to do more than walk out of school in order to remember the victims of last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

An eighth-grader at St. Luke School in Erie, Reitz had heard through social media that teen-age students throughout the country would be participating in the March 14 National School Walkout.

“I talked to my mom about it and I was thinking about it and wondered, ‘Is there a way to put a positive spin on this?’ Reitz said. “She told me to pray on it and that’s when I thought of a prayer service at church. It’s more of a walk-in to pray to God for the souls of the people who are, unfortunately, not with us anymore.”

A teen-ager like many of the 17 victims in Florida, Reitz felt the deep pain of yet another school shooting, a common occurrence in his young lifetime.

“It is to come together with the community, with the country and say, ‘God still has a presence in this and we can do something before more violence happens again,” Reitz said.

He worked with Principal Julia Strzalka and other staff members to organize a morning service that included placing 17 empty desks near the altar, with the name of each victim. Seventeen eighth-graders carried white candles that were placed on each desk.

Father John Malthaner, pastor, offered a blessing and prayer and then, as each victim’s name was read, a St. Luke student lit a candle on the appropriate desk.

A poem written by one of the victims before his death also was read. Following silent prayer and music, all students came to the center of the church, holding hands and then raising them to the sky in solidarity.

The moment brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance. For Reitz, it was a moment he’ll always remember.

“We were all looking at each other; it could have been any of us who were killed. It could have been the person I was holding hands with,” Reitz said.

Strzalka said the prayer service involved 170 of the school’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Younger students were not included in the service due to the sensitive nature of the violence.

“Knowing that we pray together will show that there is a brighter future for our country,” Strzalka said. “It will give the students strength.”

On March 13, students at St. Joseph School in Lucinda participated in a morning Mass dedicated to victims and survivors of school violence.

“We selected the theme of the Mass as “be at peace with everyone,” said Betsy Ochs, principal of St. Joseph.

The Florida massacre, the deadliest recorded high school shooting in America, has prompted young people throughout the country to advocate for stricter gun-control laws and more mental health resources.

Youth activists also have organized a March 24 March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

The chairpersons of two U.S. bishops’ committees said it is long past time for the nation’s leaders to come up with “common-sense gun measures as part of a comprehensive approach to the reduction of violence in society and the protection of life.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops have advocated for such measures for decades and will continue to do so, said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre, the bishops in a joint statement March 5 said the moment “calls for an honest and practical dialogue around a series of concrete proposals—not partisanship and overheated rhetoric.”

Bishops Dewane and Murry rejected the idea of arming teachers, as President Donald Trump and others have suggested as one possible solution. This “seems to raise more concerns than it addresses,” the prelates said.

“Setting a more appropriate minimum age for gun ownership, requiring universal background checks—as the bishops have long advocated—and banning ‘bump stocks’ are concepts that appear to offer more promise,” the bishops said.

So-called bump stocks are devices used to make a semiautomatic gun act like a fully automatic weapon.

Bishops Dewane and Murry noted that for many years, the USCCB has supported several measures to reduce gun violence.

They also lauded the reform efforts of the Florida shooting survivors and other young people around the country, calling their actions “a stark reminder that guns pose an enormous danger to the innocent when they fall into the wrong hands.”

“The voices of these advocates should ring in our ears as they describe the peaceful future to which they aspire,” Bishops Dewane and Murry said. “We must always remember what is at stake as we take actions to safeguard our communities and honor human life. In the words of St. John, ‘Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.’”



Diocese advocates for Down syndrome legislation


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Michele Inter, left, director of Disabilities Ministries for the Diocese of Erie, and Patrice Swick, director of the Office of Social Justice and Life, attended the March 12 Harrisburg rally.

HARRISBURG—The Office of Social Justice and Life and the Office of Disabilities Ministries of the Diocese of Erie—along with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference—urge Catholics to advocate for proposed legislation that prohibits the abortion of any child solely due to a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Under current law, a woman can obtain an abortion prior to 24 weeks gestational age for any reason if a physician deems it necessary, except if the woman’s sole reason is to select the sex of the child.

House Bill 2050 and Senate Bill 1050 will expand that exception to prohibit aborting a child solely due to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

According to Eric Failing, director of the PCC’s Social Concerns Department, the legislation, if passed, could save between 133 to 179 Down syndrome children per year in Pennsylvania.

Patrice Swick, director of the Office of Social Justice and Life, and Michele Inter, director of Disabilities Ministries, attended a Life Worth Living event March 12 in Harrisburg. Along with other proponents of the legislation, they met with legislators and talked with many families affected by Down syndrome.


This was the scene at the state capitol in Harrisburg on March 12.

Among those in attendance was Karen Gaffney, the president of a non-profit foundation and the first person with Down syndrome to swim the English Channel.

“For me, this was incredibly important to be present at the rally and witness all of the beautiful families and diverse organizations coming together to support such an important cause,” Swick said.

According to Swick, the rally served as “a launching point.” She encourages people to call and visit their state legislators, asking them to support the legislation.

According to PCC reports, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has vastly improved. In 1983, the life expectancy was 25; today it is 60.

For more information about the bill and proposed action, go to


Prom held for people with special needs

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Matthew Serafin, a parishioner of Our Lady of Peace Parish, Erie, arrives on the red carpet at the Night to Shine prom night at Erie’s St. James Church. (Photo by Debra Gilmore)

 FAITHLIFE staff report

Paparazzi and the red carpet greeted more than 100 people with special needs at the Night to Shine event Feb. 9 at St. James Church in Erie.

Another 300 volunteers, buddies and family members of those with disabilities also participated in the unforgettable prom night experience sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation.

“The night was just phenomenal,” said Jim Serafin, whose 17-year-old son Matthew was among the celebrated guests. “He was excited the whole week before. It gave him the independence to be by himself and celebrate instead of having mom and dad with him all the time.”

St. James was among more than 500 churches around the world that hosted a Night to Shine event that same evening. The Diocese of Erie’s Office of Disabilities Ministries offered volunteer hours and planning.

“I think this was a wonderful evening. It certainly brought to light the fact that there is a wonderful movement in Erie to not forget people with disabilities,” said Michele Inter, director of the diocesan office. “We all need joy in our lives.”

Night to Shine invites anyone with a disability to attend the red carpet event, complete with a warm welcome from a friendly crowd and paparazzi to take photographs.

The Tim Tebow Foundation provided St. James and all host churches with official planning manuals, kits, decorations and gifts for guests.

The honored guests get limousine rides and, once inside, have the opportunity to receive a hair and makeup treatment, a shoe shine, corsages and boutonniers, prom favors and a catered dinner. They participate in karaoke and, of course, dancing. Each guest is crowned king or queen. A separate room is provided for parents and caretakers.

Jim Serafin and his wife, Kim, parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish, Erie, were happy that their son Matthew participated. He was born with a brain malformity that caused cerebral palsy. Diagnosed when he was five months old, he currently is a sophomore in a life skills class at McDowell High School. Despite his challenges, he has been active in Boy Scouts, basketball and track.

“We hope to see this event offered again. It was exciting to be a part of it,” Jim Serafin said. “It was rewarding for parents, too. I met parents I haven’t talked to and we shared our challenges and opportunities.”

For more information about Night to Shine, visit


161 journey to Catholic faith

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Celebrating the Rite of Election Feb. 18 at St. Peter Cathedral are a group from Notre Dame Parish in Hermitage. Pictured in the front row, from left, are: candidates and catechumens Brian Goda, Tom Anderson, Dawn Milani and Eric Brown; and in the second row, from left: sponsors Alexis Goda, Kathleen Anderson, Pat Polesnak, coordinator Kathy Higgins, and sponsor Jennifer Brown. (Contributed photo)

On Feb. 18, the first Sunday of Lent, 161 people in the Diocese of Erie took the next step toward being fully welcomed into the Catholic Church during Rite of Election liturgies in Erie and Ridgway.

“The Rite of Election is an occasion of great joy in the church of Erie,” according to Sister Nancy Fischer, SSJ, coordinator of the Office of Christian Initiation for the diocese.

The Rite of Election is part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), a process that was restored to the Catholic Church after Vatican II. Catechumens and candidates will be welcomed into the Catholic faith at Easter Vigil Mass March 31.

Rite of Election liturgies were held this year at St. Peter Cathedral in Erie, and at St. Leo Parish in Ridgway. Bishop Lawrence Persico presided at the Erie event, and Bishop Emeritus Donald Trautman presided in Ridgway.

Of the 161 participating in this year’s Rite of Election, 63 are catechumens (people who have never been baptized in any faith); 53 are candidates who were baptized outside the Catholic Church; and 45 are Catholics who are completing their rites of initiation, including first Holy Communion and confirmation.


Gannon expanding campus in Ruskin, Fla.


This is an architectural rendering of the new building at Gannon University’s Florida campus. (Contributed photo)

FaithLife staff report

Gannon University’s Ruskin, Fla., campus opened a little more than two years ago, but its enrollment already has quadrupled, from 24 students to more than 100.

The good news doesn’t end there.

Today, Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico is in Ruskin, along with Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, for the groundbreaking of a new 80,000-square-foot building. The structure will house masters’ and doctoral programs in the health service professions.

Both bishops will formally bless the ground and officially begin the expansion project, which is expected to cost $21 million.

The new three-story structure is located on land purchased adjacent to the original building, which was opened in 2015.

“Currently, we have occupational and physical therapy and athletic training programs at Ruskin, but this new building will allow us to bring in additional health profession programs,” said Dr. Steve Mauro, vice president for academic administration.

The first floor of the new building is expected to be completed by March 2019, allowing the school to enroll more students beginning in the fall semester of 2019.

Among the additional programs that will be offered is a master’s physician assistant degree, a popular program at Gannon’s downtown Erie campus, Mauro said.

“By next fall, our enrollment will be closer to 200. We really want to grow over the next six to seven years to bring enrollment to between 400 to 500 students,” Mauro said.

According to Mauro, Gannon is paying for the expansion with savings and capital funds. He said the university is expecting to hire five to six new faculty and additional staff at Ruskin.

“We’re offering the right kinds of programs and high quality programs,” Mauro said. “Health professions, in general, are such a high-demand field.”


Catholic school grad starts as goalie for Team USA; Other athletes with Mercyhurst connections take Olympic ice


Four world-class hockey players with ties to Erie’s Mercyhurst University—a Catholic institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy—are competing in this month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Most notable in that Olympic lineup is Erie native Ryan Zapolski, 31, who not only graduated from Mercyhurst in 2011, but is a 2001 graduate of St. George School, and a 2005 graduate of Erie’s Cathedral Preparatory School, both in Erie.

He is the starting goaltender for the U.S. men’s hockey team, whose games are scheduled in Pyeongchang, South Korea, through Feb. 25.

“Being able to represent Erie and Mercyhurst is really special to me and I hope it can inspire future generations of kids to really believe in their goals and to never give up on your dreams!” Zapolski said in an email to the university before leaving for the Olympic Games.

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St. George Principal Allison Reynolds carries an Olympic torch during a procession at a special Mass Feb. 9 at the Erie elementary school. Behind her are fifth-grader Clara Gibson and fifth-grade teacher Eric Trapp, a long-time friend of Olympian Ryan Zapolski.

On Feb. 8-9, the St. George community celebrated one of their own making it to the pinnacle of the sports world. Eric Trapp, a fifth-grade teacher at St. George, is a longtime friend of Zapolski’s. He shared with all classrooms a video he created that included an interview with the Olympian, along with comments from students as well as teachers who taught Zapolski when he attended St. George.

According to Principal Allison Reynolds, “Our students are very excited to have a St. George alumnus in the Olympics.”

On Feb. 9, the day of the opening ceremonies in South Korea, the school community celebrated a Mass for the intentions of Zapolski and all Olympic athletes, and participated in a day of Olympic-style games. Trapp wore his old friend’s jersey.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Trapp said. “Not only is Ryan representing St. George and Erie, but the whole country. It’s surreal.”

Zapolski will be joined in South Korea by three other athletes with Mercyhurst connections:

Canadian Meghan Agosta, 30, a 2011 Mercyhurst graduate

Canadian Bailey Bram, 27, a 2012 alumna

Emma Nuutinen, 21, a native of Finland who currently is a sophomore.

Zapolski played for Mercyhurst’s men’s ice hockey from 2007-11, and for Prep, where he set a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League playoff record of 88 saves as a senior in 2005.

Agosta and Bram began their NCAA careers playing Division I women’s ice hockey for the Lakers and are representing their native Canada at the 2018 Games. Nuutinen is making her second Olympic appearance, having helped her native Finland take fifth place in 2014.

Another Mercyhurst student, Vilma Tanskanen, just missed the final roster on the Finnish Olympic team, but was offered a position as first alternate.

Mercyhurst—a small university in northwestern Pennsylvania with a total enrollment of 3,500—has distinguished itself on the international hockey stage. President Michael Victor and coaches Rick Gotkin and Mike Sisti credit hard work over the long haul.

“Rick and Mike have built a championship culture,” Victor said of Gotkin, the men’s head coach the past 30 years, and Sisti, who founded the women’s hockey program 19 years ago.

Gotkin and Sisti acknowledge the discipline needed to establish a strong team, but they also point to the pool of strong athletes and university support.

“I think what cemented us as one of the best [hockey programs] in the country were good students who are hard workers and who are full of pride,” Sisti said. “There’s a combination of coaching, people at Mercyhurst who work with our student athletes, and getting athletes who have a certain character. They know we’re going to throw them in the fire.”

Sisti turned the women’s program into one of Division I’s powerhouses. The women have made 10 consecutive trips to the national tournament.

Gotkin is the only coach in NCAA history to take the men’s program to the NCAA tournament at all three levels: Divisions I, II and III. He has led the Lakers to 530 wins, six NCAA tournament appearances and five league championships.

Gotkin coached Zapolski, a relative unknown in hockey circles until grit and determination got him a spot on the Mercyhurst men’s ice hockey team in 2007. While playing as a Laker, Zapolski was named to the 2008-09 All-Atlantic Hockey Association second team, and the 2009-10 All-AHA third team. After graduation, he played professionally for the ECHL, having been named its Rookie of the Year, Goaltender of the Year, and First Team All Star. He currently plays professionally with Jokerit, a Finnish-based club in the Kontinental Hockey League, the highest pro league in Europe.

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Rick Gotkin, left, men’s head hockey coach at Mercyhurst University, presents Ryan Zapolski with his retired number and jersey from his Mercyhurst days.  (Photo by Haleigh Giebel)

When the National Hockey League (NHL) opted not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, lesser-known players, like Zapolski, were tapped. He was the first player recruited for the goaltender position on Team USA.

“We could talk about the culture of coaching here, but at the end of the day, it’s all about Ryan Zapolski and what he has accomplished,” Gotkin told FaithLife. “He is as loyal as a hunting dog. He’s a great kid and a great athlete. He’s putting it all together.”

Before going to the 2018 Games, Zapolski was in Erie, visiting family and practicing at the Mercyhurst Ice Center. Coach Gotkin presented him with his university jersey, #35, which is now retired.

Zapolski said he is grateful for the support of his parents, Raymond and Susan, his brothers and sister, and his wife, Elizabeth Fisher Zapolski, whom he married at Mercyhurst’s Christ the King Chapel on Aug. 1, 2015.

He also credits his success on the ice to some local coaches, including Pete McCormick of Cathedral Prep, Gary Peterson Sr. in youth hockey, and, of course, Gotkin.

Gotkin was unable to travel to South Korea to see Zapolski’s performance in person. But Mercyhurst has its own kind of Olympic venue, featuring many hockey stand-outs from all over the world.

Gotkin will watch his protégé on television.

“A little piece of all of us is going with Ryan,” Gotkin said.