By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Two diocesan high school students claimed victories in the Iowa Knights of Columbus state essay contest this year. Wendolyn Hannum, a ninth-grader at Holy Trinity Junior/Senior High School in Fort Madison, won the state contest for her grade level. Matthew Tjaden, a senior at Assumption High School in Davenport, was the top entrant among seniors in Iowa. In their essays, both students reflected on the topic, “The Responsibility of the Catholic Citizen in a Free Society.”
Both entrants first won the essay contests of their local Knights of Columbus councils. Ted Schneider of Fort Madison Knights of Columbus Council 739 initially judged Wendolyn’s essay before sending it off to state competition. She seemed to have all the elements necessary to understand the responsibility of being a Catholic, especially for someone her age, he told The Catholic Messenger. “That, to me, spoke a whole lot about her maturity. … She’s a pretty smart kid.”
In her one-page essay, Wendolyn discussed the idea of religious tolerance. “Religious intolerance has been around for as long as people have,” she wrote. “I think that a Catholic citizen is someone who is tolerant of other people’s beliefs and ways of life, someone who stands up for their right to religious freedom, and is thankful for their religious freedom.”
She also expressed, among other things, what it means to her family to have the freedom to live out their Catholic faith. “Because of religious freedom, I go to a Catholic school, I can go to church and be a part of a youth group, and my mom has a job as our church’s parish administrator. Without each of these things I would be a very different person; I would have different morals and beliefs, I wouldn’t have ever met so many of my friends, I would think about every part of life in a different way, and my mom wouldn’t have any income to support my family. I personally owe a lot to religious freedom.”
Tom Heinold, deputy grand knight of St. Paul the Apostle Knights of Columbus Council 15725 in Davenport, judged Matthew’s essay at the local level. “I liked Matt’s essay primarily because it was written from experience rather than research. It was also evident that he didn’t just do a Google search on “religious freedom” and then just regurgitate it onto the paper.”
Heinold said Matt quoted Scripture appropriately and his spelling, grammar and usage met expectations as well. “Most of all though, he told a personal story about what religious freedom means to him in light of his observations and experiences in the world where not everybody enjoys (religious freedom) as we do.”
Matt’s essay “was a local, national and even global call to Catholics and non-Catholics everywhere to see that religious freedom is granted as a basic human right.”
In his essay, Matthew reflected on his upbringing in Asia. “As Catholics, we must fulfill our religious duty by actively advocating for international religious freedom. It is the first and foremost problem of the Church, as potential members are denied their right to hear the Gospel as God intended it to be heard,” he wrote.
Schneider and Heinold chose to surprise Wendolyn and Matthew publically upon learning that the teens had won at the state level. Schneider presented Wendolyn with a plaque after an all-school Mass and Heinold surprised Matthew at Assumption High School’s senior awards ceremony.
The essays have since been sent on to the national level of competition.
Both Schneider and Heinold hope that the success of Wendolyn and Matthew will bring more attention to the contest and encourage more students to enter in the future.