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The Rev. Steve Tokarski was telling the St. Francis Primary students about the importance of gratitude Tuesday morning during a special Thanksgiving Mass in the gymnasium at Central High.

Using the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers, in which only one returns to thank him, Tokarski told the students that they, too, needed to be grateful.

"Today," he said, "we have a special reason to say thank you for Catholic education in Billings."

Attending the Billings Catholic Schools All-System Thanksgiving Mass were five of the 13 graduates from St. Patrick's High School's first graduating class in 1947.

St. Patrick's predates Central High and was the first Catholic high school in town. Those who helped establish the school, and the students who filled its classrooms, were recognized Tuesday for blazing the trail of Catholic high school education in the community.

Sister Mary Laura Huddleston likened it to Camelot.

"For one brief moment in time we want you to know there was a place called St. Patrick's High School," she told current students.

Huddleston grew up in Billings and attended another historic Catholic school here, St. Vincent's Hospital School for Crippled Children. Huddleston had polio as a child and received treatments from the hospital while she attended school.

Eventually she went on to St. Patrick's and then to Central, following its construction. She was a member of Central High's first graduating class. A member of the Catholic organization Sisters of Charity, Huddleston flew to Billings for the ceremony. She lives in Kansas City, Kan., and works with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Systems.

Speaking to the Billings Catholic students, she told of how pleased she was to see how the school system has grown.

"I'm honored to be here with you," she said. "We've lived a long life, and now we challenge you to carry on."

For Nick Sassano, one of St. Patrick's graduates, the ceremony was a touching reminder of his youth.

"It was going back in memories," he said. "It almost made you want to cry."

At the end of the ceremony, Shel Hanser, principal of Central High, unveiled a large, framed picture that contained a drawing of St. Patrick's High School and the portraits of the school's original staff and the 13 graduates.

It was hung near the front of Central High.

Closing out the event, Huddleston invited all of the St. Patrick's students in attendance to stand. Eight people stood to spontaneous clapping from across the gymnasium that turned into a standing ovation.

Sassano smiled. "It was nice."

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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