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'Bowled over': pontiff's personal touch wows children

Hours of waiting for Big Assembly are forgotten as Pope meets and greets

Hours of waiting for Big Assembly are forgotten as Pope meets and greets

Teachers and children who attended the Big Assembly address by the Pope have this week been swapping tales of their meeting with Benedict XVI.

Last Friday's gathering, where the Pope gave an address to more than 3,000 schoolchildren at St Mary's University College in west London, was the set-piece event for Catholic schools in England and Wales.

Many children and teachers stayed overnight in the capital to make sure they arrived on time for the two-hour assembly, which saw two schools - Maria Fidelis RC Convent School in north London and the Holy Rosary and St Anne's Catholic Primary in Leeds - sing for the Pope and lead the congregation in hymns.

To the surprise of those on the stage, the Pope met members of the choirs and their teachers afterwards.

Holy Rosary's head Liz McDonaugh-Smith said more than 40 pupils from the school made the trip to London.

The school's choral director Sally Egan was presented with rosary beads blessed by the Pope, which she has since donated to the school.

"What Sally did was a selfless act and we're planning to put them on show," Mrs McDonaugh-Smith added. "The children were totally bowled over by the experience and when we got back to Leeds, we got a fantastic reception from parents and staff. The parents were over the moon."

Children from Holy Cross Catholic School in Plymouth presented the Pope with gifts as part of their work to provide materials and teaching help for St John Vianney School in Gambia.

Deputy head Leah Burch, who spearheaded the scheme, revealed that she, too, had met the Pope. She said: "We talked about the link between the schools and he was very impressed. I feel deeply honoured."

Kimberly Nguyen, a pupil at Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School in east London, was one of eight asked to read to the Pope during the Big Assembly.

The 13-year-old said that she found out just two weeks before the event that she would be speaking. "I was very nervous," she added. "Learning my lines was hard work, but I was very pleased to do it. It was exciting when the Pope blessed me with the sign of the cross."

Oona Stannard, chief executive of the Catholic Education Service, said Benedict's visit - the first by a pope to Britain since 1982 - would be remembered by pupils and teachers for the rest of their lives.

"You cannot overestimate the influence his visit will have for us in Catholic education," she added. "It opens up a year to celebrate the legacy of the papal visit."

Papal appreciation

Benedict bows down to music

Maria Fidelis RC School's assistant head Lyn Newell, who manages the school choir, said the 50-strong group received a bow from the Pope after their performance.

"All the children cheered and his street cred went up big time," she said, adding that the Pope came over to shake her hand after the event.

"We didn't expect for one moment he'd come over. We thought he'd walk off, but he waved his aides away and came across. I certainly didn't expect to shake his hand."

Like the children from Holy Rosary, the choir stayed at the venue the night before the Big Assembly in Twickenham to make sure they were in place a couple of hours before the event started.

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