By Christina Capecchi
The Catholic Spirit
March 24, 2005
The snow doesn’t slow them. The kids
playing at the corner of Albemarle Street and Geranium Avenue in St. Paul
fly under the flurries, a blur of braces and braids and boots.
“It’s controlled chaos,” says St.
Bernard’s fifth-grade teacher Diane Smith, who ushers her students
across the street when recess ends and watches them sprint to the school
Two years ago this month, those
screeching signs of life almost came to a halt. The archdiocese announced
that St. Bernard’s grade school would close.
was a decision officials made with regret, said Father Kevin McDonough,
archdiocesan vicar general. But the turnaround plan St. Bernard’s had
launched in 1999 — increasing recruiting, strengthening the board of
directors, expanding the tuition assistance program — wasn’t turning
the numbers around.
In the spring of 2003, the school’s
K-8 enrollment had dropped to 196, after reaching nearly 300 in 1995-96.
Meanwhile, the school’s debt had risen to $2 million. And the annual
subsidy it received from the archdiocese had climbed to $164,000 — the
high end of the subsidy spectrum that the diocese gives to its 23 Catholic
Officials announced March 7, 2003,
kindergarten through sixth grades would be eliminated at the end of the
school year. The decision that, unbeknownst to them, had been debated for
some time was called irrevocable.
A sea of sadness swept over the school.
“It hit me very hard,” said Claudia
Diez, a mother of two students. “St. Bernard’s always felt like an
extension of my own home.”
“I told my mom that I wouldn’t go to
school,” said fifth-grader Azureya Blair, 10. “I didn’t think any
school would compare.”
The surprise of the news added to its
sting, said Father Mike Anderson, pastor of St. Bernard’s. “They had
been in the dark,” he said. “I was never able to give the people the
opportunity to do anything for themselves.”
That, coupled with the finality of the
decision, seemed like a sure-fire formula for indignation.
“I was waiting for pitchforks and
torches down to the chancery, ‘We’ll show the archbishop what we
think,’” Father Anderson said.
School president Jennifer Cassidy, the
third of four generations in her family to attend St. Bernard’s,
anticipated animosity toward administration as well as the archbishop.
“I was even nervous to go see my
grandma,” she said. Not to mention facing all the parishioners at Mass.
“I thought, ‘Geez, I’m going to go to church and they’re going to
look at me and think, “We put you in charge and look what happened!”
A surprising reaction
But in that gloomy financial story,
every chapter is framed in faith. It begins when the news that could have
brought out the ugly in people brought out the good.
“Parents came up to me and gave me
hugs and asked how I was doing,” Cassidy recalled. “They said, ‘You
know, God has a plan for this place.’ I was looking in their eyes and
seeing an absolute trust. And that was the strength I needed.”
Staff members were equally encouraging.
“Teachers who just heard they were
losing their job came up to us and asked, ‘What can we do for the kids?’”
Parents and students, on the other hand,
expressed concern for their beloved, suddenly unemployed teachers. “It
was just the most amazing time of grace,” Father Anderson said.
“Immediately, we began to bring it
into prayer,” principal Mark Lenihan said.
The staff prayed every morning. The
school united at weekly Mass. Parishioners planned prayer vigils — not
pickets. And students wrote to Archbishop Harry Flynn.
“The letters were beautiful,” Smith
said. “There was nothing that condemned him. They were consoling, ‘We
know it must have been a hard decision, but please rethink it; we really
love our teachers and our friends.’”
The students didn’t stop there. They
scoured the phone book, searching for any possible donor that could save
their school. One wrote to Kemps Ice Cream. Others tried Oprah.
“They left no stone unturned,”
Alumnae came out of the woodwork to
support the school. Parents pressed on, too. Ten formed a group called
Parents and Friends of St. Bernard’s. They made yellow shirts bearing
their name and met weekly to seek solutions.
“Many people were skeptical, saying,
‘No, it’s not going to happen,’” said Diez, a member of the group.
“But I never accepted that. I believed.”
Let go, let God
As the school president, Cassidy said,
it was tough to forfeit her authority.
“In leadership positions, we’re
taught to control everything, that it’s all up to us,” she said. “But
at one point, we finally threw our arms up and said, ‘We don’t know
where to turn. Let go and let God.’”
“The only thing we could do was bring
it to God because we didn’t have any other answers,” Father Anderson
“And the minute we did that,”
Cassidy continued, “solutions started coming. When we were holding it
tightly, it wasn’t going so well. When we let it go, solutions started
And they surfaced from nearby sources.
The neighborhood that had never seemed to notice St. Bernard’s suddenly
spoke up for the school. Local business owners met with parents in an
effort to raise funds.
“It was real affirming to St. Bernard’s
to see that, over these 100 years, we have become an anchor to the
community,” Cassidy said.
A community foundation came up with a
$50,000 challenge grant that St. Bernard’s families and friends
successfully matched. The community coalition also pledged to raise
$100,000 for the school in the year to come.
Then Father Anderson got a phone call
from a man asking: Just what would it take to keep the school open.
“I said, ‘I don’t think anything
would do it,’ ” Father Anderson said. “ 'The archbishop’s made it
abundantly clear that this is irreversible. But, I’ll call the chancery
to find out.’ ”
Father McDonough told Father Anderson
the bottom line: $600,000 each year for four years. Father Anderson called
the man back. He responded to the formidable figure with nonchalance.
“‘Oh, I can do that,’” Father Anderson recounted. “‘Just make
sure you maintain my anonymity.’ ”
In the end, the man served only as a
guarantor for St. Bernard’s, vouching to provide the required sum but
never needing to.
“He became our safety net,” Cassidy
explained. “But there was no magic pill.”
Instead, the school chiseled away at its
operating costs while unlikely donations kept pouring in. “The large
increase in our fund-raising efforts are the little people,” she said.
“It’s the village, a ton of people coming together and giving.”
Still, it was the guarantor’s phone
call that prompted Father Anderson to notify Father McDonough and assure
him the school could provide the necessary funds.
The vicar general informed the
archbishop, and the next day, March 27, he called Father Anderson with
three simple words: You can reopen.
“That was the beginning of the
resurrection story for me,” Father Anderson said. “There was a real
sense of freedom: ‘It’s not of me that this place has the capacity to
stay open. But God himself found a way.’”
The reversal of the irreversible was met
with surprise and delight.
“Our challenge to St. Bernard’s was
responded to in a way that I don’t think anyone anticipated, and
galvanized exactly the kind of support that we hoped would have been there
already,” Father McDonough said.
“It was just incredible,” Diez
recalled. “I cried tears of joy.”
High school students rejoiced, too.
Keeping kids at St. Bernard’s, said senior Matt Thell, 18, “just makes
it feel more like school.”
“They look up to us,” added
seventh-grader Annie Mohs, 13. “And we try to be role models for them.”
“It was called the Miracle on Rice
Street, and I really think it was,” Lenihan said. “God answered
Refined by the fire
Today, the 114-year-old school is
different because of the threat of closing.
For one, St. Bernard’s has remained
more closely tied to alumnae and the community. In fact, a group of
parents and school leaders is working with local business leaders to
renovate the neighborhood.
The school evokes more pride, too.
“The adversity we experienced was a
true gift from God because it made us stronger and better than ever,”
Smith said. “We needed it. We needed to see what we were made of. And
now we know.”
Students are more committed than ever.
“Even if a bomb took out our school,
the kids would be out there laying the bricks,” Smith said.
And above all, Father Anderson said, the
school is more fully steeped in spirituality.
“We approach everything from more of a
faith-angle now,” he said. “We don’t operate a day without doing
When recruiting or fund raising, for
instance, school leaders don’t alter their angle to appeal to niche
Their sales pitch is their story: “We
are the presence of Jesus Christ in the north end community,” Father
Anderson said. “We do this because Christ wants us to. How do I know?
Because we weren’t supposed to be open and we’re open. In a very
factual, concrete way, we were dead.”
The dawn of growth
It seems to be selling, because these
days the school is very alive.
St. Bernard’s is on track to achieve
its $700,000 capital campaign goal to renovate the church and school.
Enrollment increased by more than 7 percent from the last school year to
the current one. And in January, the largest eighth-grade group in the
past decade took the freshman placement test.
Those signs of resurgence, Cassidy says,
are a tribute to the school’s strengthened faith.
“When rough moments come, you’ll
hear staff telling others when passing in the hall, ‘Faith, not fear,’”
That was the Scripture summary Father
Anderson offered in his homily the day he and Cassidy learned the school
would close. The daily reading was from Matthew 5 about Jairus’
“They told Jesus that Jairus’
daughter was dying,” Cassidy said. “He said he was on his way. It took
him several days. By the time he got there, people said she had died. But
Jesus said, ‘No, she’s not dead. She’s just asleep.’ ”
The fact that God woke St. Bernard’s
from its slumber does not mean it’s an elite or favored school, leaders
“We are the island of misfit toys,”
Father Anderson said. “There’s nobody who’s quite all together in
this place. We’re blue collar. We don’t have a huge talent base. We
are very ordinary people. We’re the people who everybody forgets. But
God doesn’t forget us.”
Nor does the school’s resurrection
mean its leaders are unusually adept.
“It’s not so much what we did but
what happened to us,” Cassidy stressed.
And that’s the whole point, Father
Anderson said. It’s the story of “how God can use what some would
consider a tired little parish in a tired little neighborhood to proclaim
his mighty works and to make his presence felt.”
It’s the story of a school that, when
shaken to the core, taught its president an unforgettable lesson.
“I learned a lot,” Cassidy said. “Your
instinct is to want to hide and be frustrated and give up, but the people
here inspired me. They changed my understanding of what faith really is.
It’s in some of the darkest moments that God is the brightest to us.”
Reprinted with permission of The
Catholic Spirit Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
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