One hundred years ago, Billings Catholic Schools opened its first school building, St. Patrick’s Grade School in the St. Joachim’s Church, dedicated to making Catholic education accessible to the growing community.
The organization's founding goals are as central today as they were in the 1911-1912 school year. Educators past and present have been guided by values of faith, family spirit and academic excellence.
When Frances (Degenhart) Roberts, now 82, walked to school for the very first time in 1935, she was 5, a year too young to start classes.
But Roberts determinedly followed her older brother, John Degenhart, to Kate Fratt Memorial School almost every day for two weeks until the Sisters of Leavenworth allowed her to stay.
“My brother was 16 months older than me,” Roberts said. “I wanted to be in school too, so I would follow him across the tracks and into the classroom every day. And every day, the sisters would call my mom and tell her to come and get me, until they finally just let me stay.”
She continued her Catholic education through 12th grade and was among the first graduating class in 1947.
Roberts, along with other past graduates and current students, will spend Friday and Saturday commemorating the centennial of Catholic education in Billings. The two-day event will feature a Family Fun night at Rose Park and a Gala Dinner on Saturday with “miles of memorabilia”.
As the school system looks to the next century, one thing is for sure, Superintendent of Schools Patrick Haggarty said.
“This year is to celebrate the rich heritage and past of Catholic education in Billings and to forge a springboard for the future,” Haggarty said.
Generations of students
The Catholic school system has educated numerous multigenerational families. Grandparents spent their formative years at the school, then sent their children, who sent their children. And the sense of community is a key reason for that commitment.
“There’s a good amount of closeness within the Catholic community and I think that translates into support for the school,” Roberts said.
Roberts along with her husband, Victor, (who taught math and coached basketball at Central) sent their three children to the Catholic schools, who then sent a third generation.
The Roberts’ daughter, Dione Roberts, 55, said it was never a question whether she and her brother would attend the Catholic schools. They too, like their mother, attended Billings Catholic schools for every grade level.
“That was something we were always proud of,” Dione Roberts said. “I have so many memories of my mother sharing her memories with us.”
And although the schools faced closure during some decades, the schools have managed to carry on.
“It may have gone through some financial difficulties, but I don’t think it was ever in serious danger. There’s too much support in the community for that,” Dione Roberts said. “I think there has always been the feeling that support from family and community would carry the schools through.”
In fact, she cited community-building as a defining characteristic of the school, and said she is pleased that so many generations are benefiting from it the same way she and her siblings did, and her mother — seven decades ago.
“The kids have a strong sense of community,” she said. “They also look out for one another. Like any school, there are values, but we really do have strong bonds as classmates and family in the Catholic schools.”
Bill Brinkle, 82, attended first through eighth grades at a country school near his family’s ranch near Broadview until high school. He recalls his first day of registration at St. Patrick’s High School in 1943 when he was asked his phone number by Sister Patricia.
“We still had country phones at our place,” Brinkle said. “I told them my number—it was two shorts, and two longs. I was serious, but it became quite a joke in later years.”
Nick Sassano, 82, attended public schools in Billings until he learned a new Catholic high school was opening for his freshman year.
“When I heard about the new Catholic High School, I knew I wanted to be a part of it and its first class,” Sassano said. “My older brother attended Senior and that is where my mom wanted me to go. But, I rebelled and went and enrolled at St. Pat’s anyway.”
His mother finally warmed up to him attending St. Pat’s and began sending Sassano’s younger siblings to the Catholic schools in the following years.
“There wasn’t a lot of money, so I did various tasks like cleaning blackboards and erasers to help pay for my tuition,” Sassano said. “I also opened the church every morning at 6, rang the bell and would sing and play the organ during regular masses.”
The course load at St. Pat's offered most courses Senior High did at the time — math, English, chemistry, languages and history to go along with electives like mechanical drawing, typing and sewing. But, they didn’t have a school gym.
“We spent our noon hours, after-school hours and even study periods clearing away for an athletic field,” Sassano said. “But during the war, it was hard to get materials for building. It wasn’t until 1948, in the new school, that a gym was built.”
Sister Mary Laura Huddleston, Central High class of 1948, recalls supervisors from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth making sure students had as many extracurricular activities as possible. Students participated in drama, band, cheerleading and community service.
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 school building and gym were scarce.
But, despite not having a facility, St. Pat’s participated in athletics.
The football team, made up of 10 players in 1947, played teams from Lodge Grass, Custer, Roberts, Fromberg, Bridger and Hysham, winning six of eight games. The basketball team in ’47 was made up of 12 players, winning 19 out of 26 games.
“We’d drive by the Annex after games, oh sometimes at 11 p.m., and would yell out to the nuns whether or not we won the games,” Sister Mary said. “They always appreciated it. And that shows how close we were to the sisters. They were both our teachers and our friends.”
As a child, Sister Mary had polio and attended first through third grades at St. Vincent’s Hospital School for Polio and Crippled Children and received treatments from the hospital while she attended school.
“There were a lot of us who got sick,” she said. “I remember how often they would wash our sheets — there were always lines and lines of sheets outside drying.
“The sisters have the reputation of recognizing the needs of the times and responding. And that’s what they did. They built a school just for kids who got sick with polio and were crippled by it.”
Eventually she went on to St. Patrick's and then to Central, following its construction.
Sister Mary entered into religious life after high school and now lives in Kansas City, Kan., and works with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Systems.
Looking back, Sassano said the only major change he has seen with the schools, other than the addition of a gym, is the lack of old-school methods of the Sisters of Leavenworth, who were his teachers.
“I think they do an outstanding job in the school today, but the nuns were in a class by themselves,” he said. “They’d just need to look at you, and you knew to shape up.
“I don’t mean to suggest discipline isn’t being taught today, but I can say that the nuns are a tough act to follow as far as that goes.”
The schools began moving into a non-religious order in the 1980s, Shel Hanser, Central High School’s principal, said. He graduated from Central in 1989. His children will be the third generation of his family to graduate from the Billings Catholic schools.
According to the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth, there were about 450 nuns to teach in the Billings Catholic schools within the 100 years of education. The last nun to teach in the system was Sister Valerie McGeough, who was an educator at Central for 41 years. She retired in May 2010.
Today's Billings Catholic Schools officials believe that what started 100 years ago continues in the school system today. While there are differences — the entire staff then was made up of clergy members while there are none today — it's important to remember how it all began, Hanser said.
“No matter 100 years past or 100 years into the future, the foundation for our tradition is that of the Catholic Church,” Hanser said. “Our tradition is unique and is strong because you cannot ever waiver from the faith-based component that has been the guiding light of our schools since day one.”
He said the schools in 2012 are thankful for the tremendous vision of past generations.
“Every generation has had incredible perseverance,” Hanser said. “There have been hard times. If we didn't have the commitment of unbelievable efforts that goes back through generations of 100 years, well, I’m not sure we’d be here today.”
Each classroom will be equipped with all new classroom technology by this fall, said Tim Lowe, director of education.
“We are going into a whole new way of giving and receiving information,” Lowe said. “Our students will be taking a leap into what we call the 21st Century Classroom.”
New digital interactive whiteboards will replace the old dry erase whiteboards, which replaced chalkboards. The board is a large interactive display that connects a computer to a projector and onto a touch sensitive board that can react to either the touch of a hand or a special stylus tool.
“When you combine the resources from the Internet, the lessons can be an interactive journey including visual tools such as photos, movies and websites,” Lowe said.
Students will have the option of exploring ideas and information presented to them from multiple representations such as interactive white boards with student response systems, individual computers, group-driven labs and use of emerging technologies.
“This approach to education brings the world into the classroom,” Lowe said.