Backpack blessing begins school year for youngsters at Seattle parish

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
An estimated 150 students bring their backpacks to the altar for a start-of-school blessing during Sunday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle. The children also brought food donations for low-income students at a nearby public school. Photo: Michele Thornquist An estimated 150 students bring their backpacks to the altar for a start-of-school blessing during Sunday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle. The children also brought food donations for low-income students at a nearby public school. Photo: Michele Thornquist

SEATTLE – For the sixth year, the younger members of St. John the Evangelist Parish kicked off the school year by bringing backpacks full of food donations to Sunday Mass.

Father Crispin Okoth, pastor of the north Seattle parish, invited the children to the altar for a blessing during the September 16 Mass. The food they brought benefits a meal program for low-income students at a nearby public school.

Backpack Blessing
Tomas Vargas unloads food donations from a backpack before a September 16 Mass at St. John the Evangelist Parish. Young parishioners were invited to fill their school backpacks with food donations, bring them to Mass and receive a special blessing from their pastor, Father Crispin Okoth. Photo: Courtesy St. John the Evangelist Parish

“What touches me the most about this annual event is the service element of it all,” Father Okoth said in an email. “For me this is the most important and powerful lesson that I want my children to learn and practice throughout their lives.”

The blessing was for all students in the parish, not just the 530 students in grades K–8 at St. John’s parish school, said Principal Bernadette O’Leary.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s become a big school, parish and community event.”

Each year, the blessing is organized by Mary Wiseman, the parish’s development director, who said she borrowed the idea from another church she saw advertising a similar event. The Mass included students from the parish school serving as lectors, ushers and gift-bearers. Music was provided by the parish school’s liturgical choir.

The food collected was donated to the Broadview-Thomson K–8 Food Program; more than 54 percent of the students at that school qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, according to Samantha Woogerd, the organization’s food coordinator. The program focuses on filling the gap for students over the weekend.

Since 2012, the program has served some 80,000 meals and helped 300 to 400 students, Woogerd said. It is supported by St. John’s parish and school, as well as the Ballard Food Bank.

This year, donations from St. John’s are supplying an emergency food pantry at the school. The pantry helps students who can’t otherwise get food, as well as families struggling to make ends meet, Woogerd said.

“It’s really kind of a stopgap for our families,” she said.