Sixth-grader Benedict May writes his icon as part of the Living Saints project at O’Hara School. Over the years the program has been enriched by parents who share their skills, including 
iconography. (Courtesy O’Hara School)
Sixth-grader Benedict May writes his icon as part of the Living Saints project at O’Hara School. Over the years the program has been enriched by parents who share their skills, including iconography. (Courtesy O’Hara School)
A contingent from the communion of saints annually gathers in a pocket of Eugene. Some have braces, others ponytails. PVC pipes and props are important to these holy souls. But most of all, they want to share their story and fervent love of God.

It’s the annual Living Saints presentation at O’Hara School, the culmination of sixth-graders’ three-month-long exploration of geography, history, hagiography, iconography and faith. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the project, headed by Maryanne Obersinner.

The goal is for students to “see that the saints are tangible examples of holiness and then to be inspired by them,” said Obersinner, the sixth-grade teacher who started the ambitious project and has guided it since 1998.

The annual spring presentation in the O’Hara gym often draws nearly 1,000 people from local Catholic parishes as well as from across the state. Both the project and Obersinner have won awards related to the effort. In 2009, the National Catholic Educational Association named Obersinner one of 12 distinguished teachers of the year, and in 2014, the sixth-graders’ saint icons were exhibited in the University of Portland art gallery.

Because Living Saints is a hallmark of O’Hara, “the younger kids eagerly anticipate it, early on thinking about what saint they what to be,” said the school’s principal, Tammy Conway.

Parents help with the saint-selection process. “Maybe students will discover they were named after a saint or share a saint’s feast day,” said Obersinner, who provides mini biographies of 50 saints to give students a jump-start. This list includes familiar names, but others, such as St. Titus Brandsma — a Dutch Carmelite who spoke out against Nazi ideology and died in a concentration camp — might be new to students.

James Harvey chose St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. The rising seventh-grader said he selected the early eighth-century saint because he loves hunting with his dad.

Through his research Harvey discovered that the saint at times neglected his religious life due to his passion for hunting. Harvey said he can relate. “I can get too caught up in sports and hunting,” he said.

“Sometimes (St. Hubert) wouldn’t do what God wanted, but he always trusted that God was there to help,” reflected Harvey. “I’m trying to trust in God a lot more.”

Kate Harvey, James’ mom, said she loved the interdisciplinary nature of the project and said it was wonderful to watch her son “research and learn on so many levels.”

Obersinner said parents from the O’Hara community often generously share their skills. For example, for the past 14 years an iconographer has guided students through an abbreviated icon-writing process.

After choosing saints, students put together a country report about their saints’ homelands, including information about geography, climate, history and government. This portion is paired with the study of ancient cartography.

Then students immerse themselves in the saints’ lives.

“We have them get as much information on the saints as they can,” Obersinner said. Some draw on the knowledge of the Carmelite nuns who live in Eugene.

Obersinner said the Living Saints project gives sixth-graders their first taste of a large school assignment and teaches them how to break it into parts — preparing them for the demands of middle school and high school.

It’s also conducted at a developmentally fruitful age, Obersinner said. In early adolescence students start to consider what interests them and what they want to pursue long term. “Thinking deeply and critically about their future guides what saint they pick,” she said.

Before the final presentation, students write an “admiration essay.” Although the sixth-graders are tempted to highlight the miracles associated with the holy men and women, Obersinner encourages them to focus on their theological virtues.

“Though miracles are God in a beautiful way drawing attention to a person, we are not in control of that part,” she said. “All we can do is open ourselves up and be used as an instrument. I try to help students get back to that, to the theological virtues and how the saint has served the poor, shown forgiveness, shown heroic levels of faith, hope and love.

“We don’t pray to levitate one day,” she added.

Instead they pray for grounded holiness.

To create space to share the saints with the community, sixth-graders each paint a backdrop that hangs on 6-foot-tall PVC structures. They also gather and make props.

Whole families get involved in the process. Harvey’s aunt was visiting from Utah this year and helped come up with ideas for his costume.

“The costume was the most fun part,” said Harvey. “I looked like Peter Pan a bit.”

During the presentation sixth-graders speak not as themselves but instead tell their saints’ stories and respond to questions with their saints’ personas.

Students put a lot of thought into presentations, which can be complex or simple. One year a St. Lucy knelt for two hours with only a cross. “It was beautiful, powerful,” said Obersinner. Another year there was a St. Ignatius who brought in a cot and created a fake leg wound. “Everybody has their own way of telling their story,” said Obersinner, who relies on the saints daily.

“There are so many human stories about sacrifice and love and holiness from all over the planet; it’s incredible and inspiring,” she said. “They help me from becoming complacent.”

Obersinner’s prayer for her students always has been that they come to view saints “as real people who were 12 once, who went to school, learned, had conflicts with their family, had hopes and dreams,” she said. “I hope their saint is someone who helps them throughout their life, whatever journey their life takes.”