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Catholic school students receive lesson that matters

Dr. Jennifer Smith Stepanek with Rev. Jerry Gamrot of Holy Face Church. Photo by Little Flower Principal Caitlin Keeton.

Great Mills, MD -- St. Mary’s County Catholic school students in recent weeks have immersed themselves in the life and legacy of a real role model. Mattie Stepanek died almost 11 years ago of a debilitating disease at an age (13) at or close to the sixth, seventh and eighth graders who have been studying his message of hope and peace. Those students assembled May 13 at Little Flower School in Great Mills to hear Stepanek’s mother explain why “his story matters to the world.”

Mattie Stepanek (shown) suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. Mattie’s three siblings also died from the disease. His mother, Dr. Jennifer Smith Stepanek, was diagnosed with the disease after the four children were born. Dr. Stepanek explained to a community audience later in the day at Little Flower that the death of Mattie’s brother Jamie had a profound effect on her son.

Dr. Stepanek said that Jamie lived in constant pain but when Mattie lied down beside him in bed Jamie stopped crying. Jamie’s death was a catalyst for Mattie to start writing poetry at a very young age.

Mattie Stepanek’s legacy includes five bestselling books of poetry called Heartsongs and a collection of bestselling peace essays that he penned with former president Jimmy Carter. The former president called Mattie, “The most extraordinary person whom I have ever known.” Carter delivered the eulogy at Mattie’s funeral.

Mattie was also the lyricist for an album called Music through Heartsongs performed by Bill Gilman that reached number 15 on the Hot Country Songs list.

Dr. Stepanek said that one of Mattie heroes, in addition to President Carter, was Oprah Winfrey, on whose show he often appeared. She called him one of her all-time memorable guests during her show’s 25-year span. She shared with Dr. Stepanek that Mattie was “a messenger for our times.”

Mattie was raised in Upper Marlboro. Monsignor Michael Wilson of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Solomons was pastor of the Stepanek’s parish church and spoke at the Little Flower assembly. Monsignor Wilson is a member of the board of directors of Southern Maryland Community Resources that sponsored Dr. Stepanek’s visit to the area. The organization provides services to persons with disabilities.

Monsignor Wilson said of Mattie, “He was an awesome, impressive young man, mature beyond his years.”

Mattie’s legacy has caught the attention of many people both within and outside the Catholic Church. An organization was started in 2012 to initiate an investigation into possible canonization for sainthood of Mattie.

According to Little Flower Principal Caitlin Keeton, the Catholic school's sixth, seventh and eighth grade students were exposed to Mattie’s message of “peace and celebration of differences” in each study area. The lessons included genetic disorders in science and peacemakers throughout history in social studies. “It meant a lot today for the kids to see it all come together,” she said.

At the community meeting, Dr. Stepanek, in response to a question from The Bay Net, called the meetings earlier in the day with the students “amazing.” She said, “They didn’t just learn about Mattie. They immersed themselves with him and his message of peace, hope and joy.”

She said of his life on earth, “I think Mattie was created with a lot of gifts. God gave him those gifts.”

“Mattie swore that God talked to him,” his mother said. She said she asked those in the audience to imagine their reaction if their son told them that. “I didn’t know whether to call a psychiatrist or an exorcist,” she quipped.

Mattie told her at one point when his heart stopped that he visited with God and God asked him if he wanted to stay in heaven and go back. Mattie asked God to be sent back because he had things to accomplish. Later in his life he said he was prepared to die because God had stopped talking to him.

Dr. Stepanek said she asked her son, in an effort to try to understand what happened, what God’s voice sounded like. Mattie responded, “God doesn’t talk like people, he leaves a message in my heart.”

When asked what her fondest memories are of her life with Mattie, she said they were the times they sat and talked and “snuggling with him in my lap.”

Dr. Stepanek’s life with Mattie is detailed in her book “Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs,”

She says the real message and legacy of her son is about the choices that each and every one of us has. “When choices are rooted in hope and faith, they become an energy,” she said. She added that peace begins in each of us. “Mattie’s life story is a message of faith,” she said.

Dr. Stepanek said it is striking how Mattie’s messages are “consistent with the scripture and teachings of Christ,” even when he was very young and before he had become familiar with the Bible.

In answering the question that the students were challenged with, Dr. Stepanek said, “Why does Mattie still matter? – because hope, peace and life matter.”

Shortly after Mattie’s death in 2004 the non-profit Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation was established by a group of citizens in Montgomery County, where he was living when he died. Dr. Stepanek is executive director of the foundation. For more information about the foundation go to http://www.mattieonline.com/

Because Dr. Stepanek’s disease leaves her unable to speak at great lengths, in addition to talking she also showed two videos that detailed the life and works of her son.

Also speaking at the community gathering at Little Flower School was Holy Face Catholic Church pastor Rev. Jaroslaw “Jerry” Gamrot. He noted that very day (May 13) was the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Father Gamrot said the pope’s life was saved through “the intersession of Our Lady of Fatima.”

And Bonnie Elward, executive director of Southern Maryland Community Resources (SMCR), noted how much Mattie loved the Mother of God and his own mother. In introducing Dr. Stepanek, Elward observed that she was a faculty associate at the University of Maryland in addition to heading the foundation and being a best-selling author. She said Dr. Stepanek is often called “Momma Peace.”

To find out more about SMCR go to www.somdcr.org

Photos by Dick Myers and provided by Little Flower School Principal Caitlin Keeton

Contact Dick Myers at news@thebaynet.com

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