By NANCY CZABALA
AIKEN — Eight French students and their chaperone, Frere Elie (Father Elijah), recently visited St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken for three weeks, sharing their culture and faith.
The exchange program began at nearby Aquinas High School in Augusta. Upon hearing of it, St. Mary’s sought to bring junior high level students to visit their school from St. Denis School in Loches, France. Now in its second year at St. Mary’s, the program continues as a success. The French students were all of like mind: they didn’t want their visit to end.
A long journey for young teens to make, they took in every aspect of the town and school. They loved the atmosphere of the close-knit community of Aiken, its environment and the companionship with students at St. Mary’s. Sharing their French heritage, the students also learned about the daily customs in America. “They have a wonderful spirit and a good sense of humor,” said St. Mary Help of Christians principal, Keith Darr.
While in Aiken each student stayed with a host family. The school, Darr said, is working on organizing a summer trip for students to France and possibly an exchange program with St. Denis for the future.
Darr complimented Frere Elie, who is from the community of St. Jean, two and a half hours from St. Denis School, and who Darr said shared some exceptional views and a fresh approach in saying the liturgies. “He has a gift for preaching to young students,” said Darr.
Frere Elie said he was surprised at St. Mary’s students’ enthusiasm for going to Mass. “They were peaceful and quiet, and showed respect for being in God’s house,” said Frere Elie. He was also impressed by the peace in the classroom: “The relationship between teacher and student is very clear. Students know their limits.” He further appreciated the community effort in spreading the Lord’s teachings. In France students typically only hear about the Lord at school, he said.
Touched by the unity he felt among staff at St. Mary’s, Frere Elie expressed how important this heartfelt union was in reaching the children. “If you put the Lord in the middle of a place it shines; to put love and peace in children it must start with the Lord,” he said.
Of principal Darr, Frere Elie said, “He treats his position not so much as a job, but more like a vocation. He really wants to involve himself with the students, and they know they can count on him.”
“In France there is an old tradition of struggle; to progress you need to struggle,” he said. “But here the people seem to grow together and with this they know things will work out.”