January 20, 2015 // Local

Parish ‘gem’ begins celebration of 100 years of Catholic education in Besancon

St. Louis Academy in rural New Haven will launch the 100th anniversary of the school during Catholic Schools Week. Special activities are planned throughout the anniversary year.

By Michelle Castleman

NEW HAVEN — The year 2015 marks a very special time for the students and staff at St. Louis Academy in rural New Haven. It was 100 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, at 9:30 a.m. that the dedication of their new school was held after a blazing fire destroyed the former wooden structure called St. Joseph School on the French settlement at Besancon.

Historical accounts of the event detail a “grand time” with Bishop Herman Joseph Alerding, countless clergy and hundreds of visitors from near and far attending as they traveled via the interurban. After a solemn high Mass at the church, the faithful, along with the school children, marched to the school which was “gaily decorated with a dozen American flags” for a blessing of the interior and exterior of the new building.

Classes in the new school, which opened under the name St. Louis Academy, began on Oct. 4, with three teachers from the Sisters of Notre Dame (who had taught at the old school Sept. 3, 1910), and 116 students.

The fabulous new brick building boasted four large schoolrooms, a basement and auditorium — “well arranged and solidly constructed.”

During the early years, students thrived in the Catholic setting of their family-like atmosphere. Various reports found in the archives itemized improvements made.

In 1936, new concrete floors were laid in the basement of the school and in 1937 the interior of the school was painted, the floors reconditioned and stokers were installed. New storm windows were placed in the school in 1946 when the School Sisters of Notre Dame were still in charge and taught eight grades in four classrooms to 137 pupils.

The Sisters of Notre Dame continued to serve the children of St. Louis Academy for a total of 67 years until June 1977. A kindergarten program was started in 1979.

During the early 1980s, when conservation of energy was a concern, one third of the cafeteria was transformed into a chapel for daily Mass during the winter months. The large windows were removed, thermo paned windows were installed and the front doors of the school were replaced.

The student body has remained small but steady through the 1980s and 1990s averaging around 70 students. The school has maintained a first-class accreditation and has a very active school board and Home and School Association continuing the strong tradition of parents playing a crucial role in the school’s vitality.

Several remarkable sisters and lay principals have served St. Louis Academy over the last century. Most special in the memory of the current parishioners is Agnes Hart whose music and energy filled the halls from 1987-2004. Cheryl Layton-Whitaker and Carolyn Kirkendall also provided leadership in the new millennium.

Cheryl Klinker is current principal and has been at the helm since 2011. Under her direction, the school has significantly increased enrollment and continued to grow and flourish. With her expertise and director background for the learning disabled, St. Louis Academy became a pilot school for special needs students in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in 2012. The education provided is not only exemplary in rating but cultivates a Catholic culture of mutual respect and caring.

The school houses interactive boards and technology in every classroom and 102 students in preschool through eighth grades with seven full-time and three part-time teachers.

Recent improvements include remodeling the former art room into a resource room, replacing the original slate roof with a new one of steel tile, adding a larger, covered back porch and new windows and doors. Efforts to remodel the former convent/parish office to include space for a science lab, art and music classes are in the near-future plans.

In her January newsletter to alumni, Klinker summarized: “St. Louis Academy has stood the test of time. Our physical building may have been updated and our educational practices modernized, but it is the community pride in St. Louis Academy that sustains the Catholic mission it was destined for.”

For nearly two decades, pastor at St. Louis Besancon Parish Father Stephen E. Colchin has lovingly referred to St. Louis Academy as the parish gem.

He spoke recently of his gratitude to the parish and its families: “For 100 years, this parish and its families have supported St. Louis Academy with their time, talent and treasure and made personal sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic school. We have much to be thankful for as the Lord has guided us over this past century, and we pray this same guidance will sustain us well into the future.”

During the 2015 Catholic Schools Week, students and staff will kick off the festivities collecting 100 canned goods throughout the week as well as dressing like and re-enacting a day in 1915.

Klinker detailed the mission statement for the celebration, “The Centennial Celebration will be a time in which St. Louis Academy will honor its extraordinary past, celebrate the success of our present and imagine our future, as St. Louis Academy continues to weave a foundation of faith and academics in all students.”

Still in the planning stages, many events have been proposed for the students and community throughout the year including an alumni meet and greet, performing 100 good deeds before the 100th day of school and doing 100 service hours. The celebration will culminate on Nov. 1, 2015, All Saints Day, with Mass celebrated by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.

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