Martha Elena Bautista wasn’t wearing a royal blue cap and gown like the 28 eighth-grade graduates inside St. Columbkille Church in the late afternoon of June 18. Instead, she wore a green-patterned, sleeveless blouse and navy skirt with dark stockings.

But when the 29-year-old mother received her GED high school-equivalency diploma, members of the packed-together congregation in the narrow church clapped as loud and long as they did for each of the 16 girls and 12 boys at the Los Angeles parochial school on West 64th Street. And when she walked out with the Class of 2014, trying not to smile too broadly, they clapped even harder.

“I didn’t want to steal their thunder. I don’t want to steal their thunder,” she repeated after the hour-long ceremony, which featured bittersweet remembrances by valedictorian Natalie Jackson and salutatorian Jasmine Ortiz.

Metals on ribbons were placed over the necks of honor graduates Elba Castellanos, Briana Gonzalez and Cynthia Morales. The Henry Ware Athletic Award went to Emily Garcia, the Mary Pinkney Memorial Scholarship Award to Natalie Jackson and Jasmine Ortiz, the Msgr. Michael Lenihan Service Award to Kevin Torres, and the Joyce Sheffie Science Award to Cynthia Morales and Andres Garcia.

Father Ever Quintero gave out the diplomas. And Principal Anna Maria Rios handed each student an orange-shaded rose, which in turn was handed off to a parent or guardian waiting in the center aisle.   

Mentoring and support

Taking all this in, Martha Elena Bautista realized how blessed she really was. “When I found out by email, oh my gosh, I was in tears. I could not stop sobbing,” she said later. “All the support I’ve gotten from the archdiocese, from Sister Caroline here at St. Columbkille, and Luzanne and Marge in the legal department. Their support has been amazing.

“I didn’t honestly think I would ever get my GED. I knew the hardest portion of the actual testing would be the math for me. It’s always been my weakest subject. And I thank God every day that I passed it on my first try. That was a monster for me.”

In a different voice, she added, “But it’s very meaningful for me. I’m very blessed.”

The native Angeleno was in her fourth year of high school, but with only enough credits to be classified as an 11th-grader, when she dropped out in 2003 to help her then-single mom support her three children. She worked in a restaurant, clothing store and local fitness gym, where she became the manager.

Time went by. She married an electrician apprentice named Mario, and three-and-a-half years ago they had a son named Adam. “I’ve been working nonstop and never really had the money or the opportunity to complete high school until now,” she explained. But last year the hard-working daughter of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, while volunteering at St. Columbkille School, got some unexpected good educational news.

She learned about a pilot program the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was starting as part of its Catholic Communication and Collaboration (C3) effort, which brings the latest technology to local Catholic schools, ministries and parishes. C3 was establishing a test GED program to help adults, who never finished high school for one reason or another, earn their diploma. Academically acclaimed “SkillsTutor” from Houghton Mifflin would be used to offer online instruction in the five GED subjects: math, reading, science, social studies and writing.

‘The perfect fit’

It was the perfect educational fit for Bautista, especially when the program paid for all the required online courses and GED test. So she started hitting her home computer and studying in June of 2013. Retired Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Caroline Sanchez, who lived at St. Columbkille’s convent, served as her mentor. Luzanne Otte, project manager of C3’s pilot program, also provided encouragement and support. And it was the archdiocese’s general legal counsel, Margaret Graf, who handed her the framed high school equivalency diploma on June 18.

“I wasn’t able to continue high school when I was younger, and it took me 11 years to finally get it,” the smiling graduate gushed, returning to the church after the ceremony. Sitting in a side front pew with her were Graf and principal Rios.

“But this was self-paced, so I would pretty much figure it out. Sister Caroline could log into my account. And she would contact me, just send me encouraging emails reminding me to keep going and move forward and to do this for myself. “

Rios pointed out how Bautistia volunteered at St. Columbkille because she had a niece there who graduated last year and a nephew currently enrolled.

“The fact that she is the first recipient in the archdiocese for this program says a lot,” she stressed. “And I’m glad that we’re helping break ground and trying to get the word out to the parents that it is important, that they can go back to school and get their GED, and with the help of the program they can be successful.”

Right then, the 29-year-old graduate matter-of-factly dropped another personal academic bombshell, causing both principal and lawyer to go wide-eyed. “It opened a lot of doors for me, honestly,” she said. “I’m going for my associate degree in paralegal studies this August at El Camino College.”

Rios quipped, “You’re following in the footsteps of Marge.”

“Hey, she’ll probably be my boss in a few years,” returned Bautistia.

“That’s awesome,” Graf said, shaking her head before glancing around the church. “It seems to me that this is a perfect place, because it completely complements what we believe in the faithful, which is full education for life, for our immigrants a path to citizenship, and for everybody to validate that they are entitled to compete and move on.”

Added Rios: “I just think that education is the key. It doesn’t matter how old you are. The fact is that you continue to put one foot in front of the other, and you keep continuing to strive for the best for yourself, so that you can better your family and whatever else comes from the fruit of all of that. Education is the key.”

The 29-year-old graduate was nodding. “I’m very excited to go back to school,” she said and then sighed a little. “It’s been a long time.”