GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A week before students step in the buildings for a new school year, teachers and staff members with the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids gathered for an annual back-to-school kickoff.

Over 500 school clergy, faculty and staff members came to the Cathedral of Saint Andrew on Sheldon Boulevard downtown for a 10:30 a.m. mass celebrated by Bishop David Walkowiak on Tuesday. Thirty-one Catholic schools, along with Aquinas College were represented.

This was the first time in several years that the back-to-school mass was held in-person due to the pandemic.

“It is such a joyful experience that we get to be back together after three years of not gathering in this way, altogether,” said David Faber, Superintendent of Catholic Schools. “The virtual years were — thank God we had those tools — but this is so much better. Our energy builds from one another, and the joy we experience when we come together, there is nothing like it.”

The diocese said that enrollment grew this year, and so did staff numbers. Over 50 new teachers were hired, and there were only half as many job openings compared to the year before.

“The Lord keeps blessing us with more and more students, and more and more teachers, and so we get to share that mission with more families this year than we have in the past,” Faber said.

Students officially return to Catholic schools in Grand Rapids on August 23.