CHANTILLY, Virginia — The chapel is the centerpiece of the new St. Paul VI Catholic High School campus 32 miles from the nation’s capital.
Anyone walking through the school’s main corridor sees the large crucifix marking the entrance to Mary Mother of the Church Chapel.
It’s a place where freshman Jessica Rutherford has spent a lot of time during her first year of high school. There, in the silence, she discovered how God has been at work in her life.
At the Easter Vigil April 3, Jessica became a full member of the Catholic Church, receiving the sacraments in the same school where she first began learning about Catholicism.
“I love going to church,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington. “It makes my heart very happy.”
Even though she only has been there a year, Jessica is well-known in the school halls. As she walked to her locker after class on a recent day, classmates and teachers alike waved and wished her a happy spring break.
Jessica is enrolled in the school’s Options Program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“We found out the day she was born that she had Down syndrome,” her mother, Janie Rutherford, said.
Jessica went to physical therapy at 8 weeks old and speech therapy by the time she was 6 months old.
She still was not walking at 2½ years old, yet every day her parents brought her to the school bus.
“I’m like, ‘How are we sending her to school and she can’t even walk?'” Janie said. “But we knew it was what was best for her, to have that early intervention, the interaction with peers and other kids.”
Jessica grew up attending different public schools. Her grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles attended Catholic schools, and by the time Jessica was about to enter high school, the family was considering sending her to private school.
The tuition posed a financial hurdle until Jessica’s great-aunt and great-uncle paid her tuition to Paul VI, said her grandmother, Toni McSpadden.
Jessica said she loves attending Paul VI, and she awakens at 6:30 a.m. sharp every day to get ready.
“I love going there because it’s great, it’s magical and I love it,” Jessica said. “Everyone in my class (is) amazing. It just blows my mind.”
Janie also used the phrase “life-changing” when talking about Paul VI.
“We’ve seen such a tremendous growth and just maturing,” she said. “She’s very engaged. She’ll tell us about her day, what she did, what she learned, what she had for lunch. She feels … just like one of the other girls walking the halls, and to her, she’s one of them. There’s no difference, and to us that’s very important.”
Jessica is one of five Rutherford children.
The family is Christian, but she is the only one who is a practicing Catholic.
McSpadden regularly takes Jessica to Mass on weekends.
“When we go to church on Sunday, she participates,” McSpadden said. “We have the missal opened and I read the songs with her. She loves music so she really enjoys that, especially if it’s a song that she has heard before.”
Last fall, Jessica began attending Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at Paul VI with Deacon Tom Grodek.
By learning more about God and the church, Jessica began to understand the concept of heaven and eternal life.
In his RCIA classes, Grodek talked about his daughter, Maureen, whom he calls Moey.
Moey was born with “profound intellectual disabilities,” yet she “had a full life in our family, our community and in our church,” Grodek said.
She died five years ago, and “she’s in heaven now looking out over us,” he said.
Hearing about Grodek’s daughter “impacted (Jessica) a lot,” he said.
Three years ago, Jessica’s oldest brother died. And when she started taking classes with the deacon, “she asked him, ‘Is God taking care of my brother? I want to make sure he’s taken care of,'” Janie Rutherford said.
“Talking about the passion of Christ really impacted her as well,” Grodek said. “We talked about Jesus dying, and she still had very much in her mind and her heart her brother passing away.”
On Easter Vigil, Jessica came into full communion with the church — fittingly at Paul VI. Corpus Christi Parish in nearby Aldie has been using the school’s auditorium for Masses until its new church building is completed and celebrated the Easter Vigil there.
“To get baptized and to do my first Communion, it’s awesome to me,” Jessica said. “I love my life, my mom and dad, my boyfriend. I love my family, they’re in my heart forever.
“They’ll always be in my heart.”
Riedl is a multimedia producer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.