AGAWAM — Going to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade every year as a child, Rachel Sills remembers colleens on floats giving her the “princess wave.” She would then wave back the same way.

Next month, she will be the one waving to little girls along the parade route.

Sills was crowned Agawam’s 2024 colleen at a gala celebration Feb. 3. The Agawam St. Patrick’s Committee kicked off the Irish season with its 22nd coronation at Oak Ridge Country Club in Feeding Hills. The 20-year-old said she was surprised when committee president Abaigeal “Abbie” Malouin announced her as the new colleen.

“My face fell when I heard my name — I didn’t expect it. Then excitement just came over me. I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t think I had a shot at becoming colleen. I was up against some really talented girls who are so sweet. And they handle public speaking so well.”

The three runners-up — there were only four contestants this year — are Destiny Bullock, a senior at Agawam High School; Sabrina McBride, a student at Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee; and Gianna Smith, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. All three will form the colleen’s court and ride alongside Sills in the Agawam division of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade.

Sills, a student at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire majoring in education, said it means a lot to her to represent Agawam at the Holyoke parade on March 17, as well as at other events and activities during the coming year.

“I will come home from college more often now to fulfill my colleen duties. I’ve seen how other colleens have handled these responsibilities and I’m looking forward to doing them,” said the Feeding Hills resident.

Sills said she’s also proud to represent her Irish heritage — especially since she recently researched Ancestry.com for more information about her family’s history.

“I’ve become more in touch with my heritage after learning about where my ancestors came from in Ireland. I’m thrilled I can honor my maternal great-great grandparents who settled in Holyoke.”

Sills said her coronation is even sweeter since she had been unable to enter the colleen contest in 2021. That year, all St. Patrick’s activities were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to do this. The fact that I could still come back several years later to be a part of it and then be crowned colleen is just wonderful. This is something I will remember for years to come,” said Sills, whose career goal is to return to her hometown to teach in Agawam’s public schools.

Sills said it would be nice if she could go back in time to be the little girl at the parade knowing that one day, she would a colleen giving the princess wave. “I think little me would be pretty proud,” she said.

A panel of three out-of-town judges — Ellyn Moriarty, a nurse executive at Baystate Health, Terri Sliech, rental coordinator for the public schools in Danbury, Connecticut, and Sharon Pavlinsky, an orthopedic radiological technologist from Brookfield, Connecticut — made the difficult decision to select Sills and her court.

Judges based their decision on contestants’ biographies, interviews and essays they wrote. They were asked about their academics, athletics, extra-curricular and volunteer activities, as well as interest in their Irish heritage.

Gianna Smith won the William Pfau Cultural Award for her essay about a person of Irish descent, living or deceased, who made a significant difference in her life. All contestants were required to write a 200- to 300-word essay on this topic.

Smith’s essay described her mother’s strength following her father’s death and how she celebrated the family’s Irish heritage to help Smith and her brother through their dark days of grief.

“After losing her partner and the love of her life, my father, she was left to raise us on her own,” wrote Smith. “As I reflect on sacrifices made by my grandparents, their parents and beyond, I’m filled with gratitude because their choices allowed me to have the most admirable mother anyone could ever have.”

Kathie Pfau Caputo, the daughter of William Pfau, a founding member of Agawam’s St. Patrick’s Committee, presented the award on behalf of her family. Caputo said her dad was a “proud Irish man” who was raised in Boston and moved to Agawam in the late 1950s. After retiring, he and a group of Agawam residents who also felt strongly about their Irish ancestry formed the committee in 1999 and soon established the colleen tradition in town.

“It was my dad’s vision to spread his love and knowledge of his Irish heritage to members of the Agawam community, especially the younger generation,” she said. When he died in 2005, the committee established the essay contest and award in his honor.

“I cannot be more thankful to them for helping keep his legacy alive. The two greatest legacies he left us are love of family and love of our Irish heritage,” said Caputo.

The committee also presented awards at the coronation event to three Agawam residents who will lead the Agawam contingent on parade day.

Frank Benson was named parade marshal for his contributions on the float building committee as well as serving as vice president and, currently, treasurer.

The Anne Sullivan Award, presented to a female committee member who epitomizes the values represented by Anne Sullivan, a Feeding Hills native, went to Malouin.

The Vera Conway Citizenship Award, named in honor of a longtime committee member, was presented to City Councilor Anthony Russo for his contributions to Agawam.

“We’re so excited to begin this new Irish season,” said Malouin. “It was great to have people throughout our community come together to celebrate their Irish heritage and the 2024 colleen and her court. We look forward to the events within our community as well as throughout the regional divisions and Holyoke.” 

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