The opening of Billings' first Catholic high school in 1943 came with little fanfare and just a handful of students.
The front pages of the day's newspapers were plastered with news about World War II. But on page four of the Sept. 8, 1943, Billings Gazette, a small article was printed detailing the opening of St. Patrick's High School, the first of its kind locally and Billings' second high school.
“We knew we didn't have that much going for us, but we were just happy to have it going,” said Father Richard J. Hopkins, who taught religion at St. Patrick's and was its athletic director for several years. “The school had a rough start because it didn't have many students.”
While it was only open from 1943 to 1947 and graduated just 13 students in its brief run, St. Pat's laid the groundwork for what eventually became Billings Central Catholic High School.
Under the direction of Father William P. O'Rourke and Sister Patricia Earaerts, the school's principal, St. Pat's was added to the Kate Fratt building, and the school opened on Sept. 5, 1943. There were 25 freshmen.
The school started with Earaerts, Hopkins and a pair of Sisters of Charity nuns teaching the core classes in two rooms, a closet for art, and the basement for graphics and mechanical classes. In 1946, O'Rourke provided a nearby house, called the Annex, which featured a few bedrooms that had been converted into classrooms.
“There were eight grades and when we came in, we took over two of the rooms and the basement,” said Hopkins, who was ordained in Great Falls in 1944 and began teaching at St. Pat's soon after. “It was exciting times.”
The tight quarters didn't seem to bother the students much.
“It worked out very well,” said Nick Sassano, who graduated from St. Pat's in 1947. “We didn't have many problems. We were kind of like one big family.”
The course load at St. Pat's wasn't much different from other schools — math, English, languages and history to go along with electives like mechanical drawing, typing, public speaking and sewing.
“I think we really did get a great education there,” said Bill Brinkel, a 1947 graduate.
Tom Reynolds, who attended St. Pat's for two years before joining the U.S. Marine Corps, agrees. When he joined the Marines after high school, he had to take an entrance test. A commander called him up a short time later and told him he made a mistake filling out the enlistment form and hadn't indicated where he went to college.
“I said, 'I've only been out of high school for a little while,” Reynolds said. “They told me I scored higher than most of the people who took it. Now, I'll admit that I played hooky quite a bit and messed around a lot, but in my two years there, I think they prepared us pretty well.”
Tuition was about $68 a month, said Tom Reynolds' wife, Barbara Reynolds, who graduated from Central in 1950 and attended her first year of high school at St. Pat's.
“Folks couldn't afford tuition, so a lot of us worked after school cleaning blackboards and things like that,” she said. “We didn't get any state or local money.”
St. Patrick's and Little Flower churches — Billings' only Catholic parishes at the time — began to provide some financial help to the school, and students and supporters were organizing fundraisers to make ends meet.
“Every day, we had a mechanical drawing class together in the school's basement,” said Harold Hanser, who went to St. Pat's for two years before graduating in Bozeman in 1948. “But we were always down there selling tickets for things we were doing and counting the money. I don't think we ever completed anything because there was always fundraising to be done.”
But the school, and especially the Annex, began to see some wear and tear in its last year or two. Barbara Reynolds remembers that when the boiler went out, or was turned down to ration for the war, everybody would cram into the upper floors because “that's where the heat went.”
In late 1946, one of the Annex's pillars slowly collapsed. While it didn't impact school life much, it's something that stuck with many of the students.
“One of the pillars, fighting gallantly to the finish, breathed its last and fell to the ground,” wrote the staff of the 1947 edition of Rimoirs, a cross between a yearbook and a four-year review of the school.
“It just kept going down and down,” Sassano said. “Then it just fell right off the Annex. But the rest of the building was still standing.”
Over 30 years before the school took root, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth had established a permanent parochial school in Billings in 1911. Eight years later, that school was dedicated as the Kate Fratt Memorial School. Students could attend the Catholic school, at Second Avenue North and North 31st Street, up through eighth grade but there wasn't anywhere in town for high schoolers other than Senior High.
Educators tried in the early 1920s to establish a Catholic high school, but the school closed soon after for reasons that aren't clear even to Billings Catholic Schools officials. As the city's population grew, so did the number of Catholic families in town and they tried again about 20 years later.
St. Pat's was never really set up with the intention of lasting too long because there wasn't room for 12 grades, and plans for Central began taking shape early on. But with America's resources stretched thin because of World War II, supplies for a new building were scarce.
“There was really a good spirit there,” Hopkins said. “That was a good thing because we were running on a wing and a prayer. It certainly was an adventure operating it. We were just working through it, you know?”
Of the 25 freshmen who started there in 1943, nearly half moved or transferred by 1947. The remaining 13 became the school's only graduating class in 1947, the spring before Central opened a few blocks to the west on Division Street. The Kate Fratt School eventually became St. Francis Upper Catholic School, which serves students in grades six through eight.
Today's Billings Catholic Schools officials believe that what started at St. Pat's continues in the school system today. While there are some differences — the entire staff then was made up of clergy members while there are none today, for example — it's important to remember how it all began, they said.
“If you didn't have the people that started that tradition and the excellence that goes along with it, you would never be where you are today,” Central Principal Shel Hanser said. “It's important for our students to see that while we're sitting in a great situation here today, it goes back to tremendous vision by a lot of people before them.”
Contact Zach Benoit at email@example.com or 657-1357.