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Clarksville's St. Louis School celebrates 90 years

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When St. Louis Catholic School first opened its doors in October 1923, 43 students in seven grades studied in a three-classroom schoolhouse off Route 108 in Clarksville. A lot has changed since then.

For one, that schoolhouse was torn down in 1989 and replaced by the St. Louis Parish Center. Forty-three students are now 518, and seven grades are now 10, if pre-kindergarten counts, in a modern facility that continues to grow.

"There's so much rich history, and we've benefited from all those who have come before us," Principal Terry Weiss said recently. "We've been left this rich legacy, and it's up to us to continue on and do our best to make it even better."

St. Louis held a celebratory alumni mass and communion breakfast Oct. 1 — an event that kicked off a year's worth of celebration. More events are planned to commemorate the school's history, like the fall festival next month with an appropriate "90s" theme, albeit the 1990s, and an alumni reception during Catholic Schools Week in January.

Liz Brigham, 67, a 1960 St. Louis graduate who is now the school's recess monitor and works in St. Louis' after-care program, said the 90th anniversary shows "a stability."

"They do it right here," she said. "People keep coming, and that's great."

Michelle Kemp, the school's director of admissions and a 1999 graduate, said the school and parish have been blessed. The parish is growing — up to more than 4,400 families — and so is the school, as the population is more diverse now than ever before —racially and religiously.

"I think people want a values-based education for their children, whether or not they're Catholic," she said. "Values transcend religion, and I think people want a safe and nurturing environment for their kids."

Several alumni have come back to work at St. Louis, such as Kemp and Brigham. Brigham's cousin, Chris Feaga, graduated from St. Louis in 1957. In 1970, he was back as facilities manager, a job he held for 37 years.

"If someone had told me when I was in grade school, 'you'll wind up working here,' I would have said, 'no, no, I don't think so,' " said Feaga, 70. "But I grew up, things changed, and I realized this is a good place."

St. Louis is special, Brigham said. Coming back to work there — first as a physical education teacher in the 1980s before working in the Howard County Public School System — was "coming full circle, coming home."

"You feel as though you're not working. It's more of a vocation, a calling," she said. "You feel as though you're helping the kids' faith, and you're a witness to what God's all about. That's a neat thing to do."

For alumni to come back to St. Louis to educate the next generation, Weiss said, is an example of "a legacy that continues to grow and give."

Brigham, Feaga, Weiss and Kemp were on hand for the celebratory mass earlier this month, as was Lorraine Miller who, at 89, may be the oldest living alum of St. Louis — almost as old as the school itself.

"It's a good school," she said. "The nuns were strict, but there was always order in the classroom, and we respected the teachers and each other. It was a top-notch education. I grew up there. They put us on the right track for the rest of our lives."

Miller had fond memories of her days at St. Louis, like the Christmas plays capped off by a visit from Santa Claus, who always brought a box of hard candy and an orange for each student. In the waning days of the Depression, those gifts were precious, Miller said, and she still remembers Christmas as "the highlight of the year."

The other alums have strong memories from their time at St. Louis, too — everything from snowball fights in the yard outside to life lessons from the nuns.

As much as St. Louis has grown and changed, said the school's bookkeeper Maureen Hurst (herself an alum), the tradition is the same.

"The values are still there," said Hurst, 57, who graduated in 1969 and is the second of three generations of her family to attend St. Louis. "Our mission is still the same. The children are here because they want to be here, because their parents want them to be here."

That tradition, Weiss said, is one of "education that is nurtured in faith."

"Those things have to go hand-in-hand," she said. "That tradition is teaching the children about their faith, how to be a good person and how to serve others. That's our main job, to teach these children how to be loving, giving human beings. Academics are important, but if you don't have the other piece, you're not the whole person. You need to have that desire to love and serve others."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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