First Catholic School in Springfield holds reunionBy: Linda Leicht Springfield MO
Photo gallery may be found here.
After 123 years, it was time to have an all-school reunion at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, formally St. Joseph Catholic School.
Robert Healey from the class of 1949 took a tour of the school building on Scott Street in Springfield before joining other alums in the all-purpose room. He admitted the building was “big-time different,” but added that there is much that is the same, including the rigorous academics.
One major difference is the teachers. Healey was taught by nuns, compared to the specialized, lay teaching staff that now serves St. Joseph Catholic Academy. When the school was first opened in 1893, it was staffed by Mercy sisters from nearby St. John’s Hospital (now the Franciscan Villa) who agreed to teach if the church would provide Mass on Saturdays in their residence chapel.
St. Joseph was the last Catholic school in Springfield to change to a completely all-lay faculty.
Healey and his wife, Pearl, recently returned to Springfield after living in New Mexico for more than 40 years and rejoined St. Joseph Parish, where they met and were married.
“We just fit right back in,” said Pearl. At the reunion, Healey hoped to see fellow students, although he acknowledged that many have died.
Paula Howard, class of 1945, came in with a scrapbook filled with pictures of the school and church. She and the Healeys poured over the photos, remembering classmates and teachers.
Jerry Hadon, class of 1955, was not a member of St. Joseph Parish, nor was he Catholic, but his parents sent him to St. Joseph School “because it was a better education.” He agrees that he received quality schooling in a welcoming and nurturing environment. “It was wonderful,” he said.
Many of the alumni said they were just one generation of St. Joseph students. Howard’s five children all went to the school, and Mary Stratton, who attended in the 1970s, was the youngest of eight St. Joseph alumni from the 1960s and ’70s. Their mother and grandmother also went to St. Joseph School.
History of St. Joseph School
St. Joseph Catholic Academy was the first Catholic elementary school in Springfield, opening in a stable behind the pastor’s residence.
The first Mass was celebrated in Springfield in 1867 at Phelps Hall on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Phelps Street, when Immaculate Conception Parish was organized. St. Joseph Parish was founded in 1892 “for the faithful of German origin and nationality living in Springfield,” and North Springfield and suburbs. So read the decree of then-Bishop John J. Hogan of Kansas City as he placed the parish in the care of the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey who still staff the parish, which now serves a diverse Catholic community with Fr. Denis Dougherty, OSB, as pastor.
A donation of a house and lot from Mr. Charles Heer on the corner of Jefferson and Chestnut provided the first site for the church and school. St. Joseph Chapel was consecrated at the house, and the house also served as a boys high school. A stable in the back of the pastor’s residence was remodeled for a one-room grade school. Opened in 1893, the church and school served 30 German families in Springfield.
In 1896, the high school soon closed because of low enrollment, and it was necessary to expand the growing elementary school into that building.
In 1904, three lots were purchased at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Scott Street, where St. Joseph Church now stands. On Nov. 29, 1906, the new church was dedicated, and the new school building was completed behind the church, on Scott Street, a year and a half later. When the school term began, 105 students were in attendance.
The building included four classrooms, a hall and stage, and a large basement with restrooms and a cafeteria. But tragedy struck a few days before Christmas vacation in 1935 when the boiler blew up and fire damaged the building. In 1949, the building was condemned, and a new fireproof building just west of the old school was dedicated on Jan. 15, 1950.
By 1955, increased enrollment required an addition to the school. In 1963, the school grounds were improved and blacktopped. In 2004, a computer lab was added.
The name of the school was officially changed from St. Joseph Catholic School to St. Joseph Catholic Academy in 2010 when it separated from the Springfield Catholic Schools System. It is now supported by St. Joseph Parish and Sacred Heart Parish, Springfield.
Tradition and education
Continuing the tradition of quality education, spiritual development, and family environment is an important part of St. Joseph Catholic Academy, said Bonnie Johnson, principal and administrator.
One challenge is declining enrollment, a problem Catholic schools are facing across the country, she said.
St. Joseph Catholic Academy has an enrollment of about 70 students this year. The goal is to more than double that to 160 students, she said. The school board recently approved a plan to limit class size to 16, with 10 classrooms, keeping the student-to-teacher ratio low.
The school now has seven classrooms. The preschool serves students ages three to five. Using the Discovery method, the program offers basic skills at individual levels, as well as music, Spanish and religion. In the kindergarten-first grade class, students are introduced to computers. Grades four and five, as well as seven and eight, are also combined.
Starting in the third grade, teaching is departmentalized, with teachers who are specialists in their field overseeing courses of study. Students work with the same teachers in each subject throughout the rest of their education at St. Joseph Catholic Academy.
Despite its small size, St. Joseph offers students a variety of educational experiences, including new technology that can incorporate Online learning. Resources are also available for remedial and gifted learners.
In addition to core curriculum, students take physical education, Spanish, computer, art, vocal music, band, and choir. Clubs allow students to explore activities outside of the curriculum, including archery, cooking, drama, and sports.
Social skills and positive behaviors are an important part of the curriculum, as is daily prayer and religious training.
Johnson is excited to talk about the high level of education and the many awards the students have earned, but the most important thing for the administrator and the school is the individual student. She knows each one by name and is eager to give each a hug and a smile.
“Every single child is precious and all are made in God’s image,” she said. “Everyone deserves the best we can give.”
For enrollment or more information, contact (417) 866-0667, or visit St. Joseph Catholic Academy Online at http://www.stjosephcatholicacademy.org.