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Every other row of pews was cordoned off with rope and graduates were clustered with their families rather than conglomerated as a sea of cap and gowns front and center. This was certainly a layout with a different look and feel to it. 

“It’s weird not having you all up front,” observed Father Kirby Longo during the homily. “And the future looks rough, but that’s OK. Hard times separate the wheat from the chaff.”

While the future may be tinged with uncertainty as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak, on Sunday at St. Ann’s Church the spotlight was on celebrating the present. Butte Central High School held a mass, albeit modified, to commemorate its 37 Class of 2020 graduates, becoming the first high school in Montana to host a graduation ceremony this year.

Each graduate was limited to four guests and the mass was live streamed for those who were not able to attend. Last week, Central cleared its graduation plans with the health department. There were some 200 total people in attendance spread throughout a church with a capacity of well over 1000. 

Central President Don Peoples Jr. addressed the global pandemic head-on while speaking to the graduates, saying that — whether fairly or not — they have been labeled as the “Class of the Pandemic.”

“But out of crisis and difficulty comes resolve,” he told the graduates.

The proceedings were adapted to accommodate social distancing protocols. There was no procession of graduates at the beginning and communion was held with single file lines down three of the aisles.

Butte Central Principal J.P. Williams acknowledged the success of this year's class both academically and athletically, noting that 33 out of 37 graduates received full ride scholarships.  

Aaron Richards and Luke Heaphy — both seniors on Central’s boys basketball team that saw their State A championship game called off — delivered the prayer of petition and graduation prayer respectively.

Emily Campbell delivered the valedictorian speech in which she reflected on how tight knit their class had become and led the congregation in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for Activities Director Chad Petersen. Emma Keeley and Sophie Sullivan gave a joint salutatorian address.

While graduates didn’t get to receive their diplomas on stage or shake hands with administrators, they still each had an opportunity to be recognized, with each one having their name called out before walking on stage to have their picture taken.

“I’m just happy for the kids,” Peoples said following the ceremony. “They were a great group, great class and they really deserved to be recognized and honored with a graduation ceremony. We just feel real thankful and blessed.”

This article originally ran on mtstandard.com.

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