“Good morning! Today is Thursday, May 17,” said St. Joseph’s School principal Linda Tusek into the intercom one recent morning. She began with the day’s announcements to students and teachers, then delivered the day’s “Caring Message,” centered around that week’s theme of “character:” “Anne Frank said, ‘Parents can only give good advice or put their children on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.’ Now please stand and join in the morning prayer....”
Following the prayer, Tusek concluded, “Please continue your prayers in your individual classrooms. Have a good day, and remember to be kind to one another.” So began another day at St. Joseph’s, much as it has throughout the school’s long existence. But this would be one of the last days for the daily ritual, because after 136 years on Springfield’s north end, the school is ceasing operation.
According to the 1870 U.S. Census, Springfield had a population of 17,364. The city’s north end was growing rapidly, aided in part by such industries as the Illinois Watch Factory at North Ninth Street and North Grand Ave., and Rolling Mills, North Eleventh and Ridgely. Amid this setting, in 1876 the north end and its predominantly Irish working-class population, got its first Catholic church, and the city’s third overall, with the founding of St. Joseph’s Parish, on the corner of North Sixth and Eastman streets. The church opened on Christmas Day, 1877, the same year an affilliated four-room school was built. The original structure, known as “the Scout Hut” for its many years hosting Boy Scout meetings, still stands.
Just north of the new church and school were the Ursuline Sisters, founded in 1857, who opened a convent, as well as Springfield’s first Catholic school, originally at Sixth and Mason. They moved north 10 years later. Ursuline Academy continued at 1400 N. Fifth for well over a century until closing in 2007. In 1892, the nuns began staffing the new St. Joseph’s school, and went on to provide teachers for other Catholic schools in the city. In 1910, the school moved into a new three-story building at Fifth and Eastman. That would be their home for the next 76 years, with one brief interruption.
In the early morning hours of May 14, 1949, the school was seriously damaged by fire. “We walked into this building and honestly, all that was left was just the shell,” recalled Sister Rosaire Lazzari in 1991 in an article in the State Journal-Register. “You could look up and see the sky.” No one was injured, but the interior had to be completely restored, and the top floor was removed. In the meantime, classes were held at Ursuline, the nearby Springfield Junior College (now Benedictine University of Springfield) and Cathedral Boys’ School (a predecessor to Sacred Heart-Griffin School).
The fall of 1956 saw a new addition, which became the main school building in 1986 with the demolition of the original structure, as well as a new gymnasium. Through the years, St. Joseph’s went from being staffed by nuns, to largely lay teachers. Michael Lelys was the first secular principal, in 1974, as were two of the three who followed him. The school, which for decades had drawn its student body almost exclusively from its north end parish, has, in recent years, had students from around the city, as well as from a few nearby communities. And, as with other Catholic schools in Springfield and nationwide, attendance has gradually declined. From some 500 students in the 1960s, enrollment has trended downward – from almost 200 for the 2000-01 school year, to a projected 82 for this fall, with only three of those enrolled in kindergarten.
St. Joseph’s has had a history of several generations of families attending. A good example were Gary and Mary Faxon, who were wed at St. Joseph’s church. In doing so, Gary married into a family whose children have attended the school all but two years since 1959. The tradition concluded with son Benjamin as one of 17 students in the class of 2012. “I’ll miss the tradition and sense of community,” said Faxon. “We’ve shared it with other church and school families. There’s a lot of strong bonds. We were hoping our grandchildren would attend.”
Another parent, Michelle Bretscher, cited the decline in nuns teaching and the closure of the Ursuline convent several years ago as a turning point: “When the convent closed, their tradition of service declined. There wasn’t that constant interaction anymore.” She noted its status as Springfield’s oldest Catholic school, and lamented, “It’s a shame that tradition has to be cast aside.”
One person especially active in maintaining the school’s sense of community didn’t even have any children in the school. Jim Moser has been a parishioner for more than 20 years, and has been a regular presence around the school in numerous ways. Originally assisting in yard work, Moser went on to help supervise the playground, and to walk several children home every afternoon. “I’ll miss the kids,” he said. “When I’m not here, the kids ask about it.”
Moser also cites the departure of the nuns and the convent’s closing as contributing factors in the school’s demise: “It used to be the schools were free to the parishioners because the nuns did most of the teaching, and it was considered part of their duties.” The decline in Catholic school enrollment concerns him, noting, “St. Joe’s almost certainly won’t be the last school to close.”
The Rev. Msgr. Thomas Holinga has been at St. Joseph’s Church since 2002, long enough to witness the most recent slide in enrollment. Even the figure of some 200 students that year, he said, “included an influx of some 30 students from St. Cabrini’s when it closed that year. There’s been a considerable decline ever since.” It was serious enough for the Springfield Catholic Diocese to commission a study by the National Catholic Education Association in 2007 as to how the decline might be reversed. Among its conclusions were that there were two too many schools in town for the population, out of the then seven Catholic elementary schools in operation. (The others are St. Aloysius, St. Agnes, Blessed Sacrament, Cathedral, Little Flower and Christ the King.) One proposal would have had another north end school, St. Aloysius, merging with St. Joseph’s, but nothing came of it.
Even one of the best things about St. Joseph’s was ultimately a factor in its closing, according to Holinga: “Our small class size was a strength, but it was also a weakness.”
Amie Meneghetti, morning personality at WQQL (“Cool 101.9”) is a St. Joseph’s alumna who spent the maximum nine years there, from kindergarten to eighth grade. As schoolchildren often do, she hit it off with one teacher in particular: “I had Sister Monica in first grade, and we bonded well. I ended up taking her name as my confirmation name. I visited her at the Ursuline convent almost weekly until she died in the late 1980s.” But Sister Monica wasn’t the only nun Meneghetti remembers fondly: “The nuns were some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. They were so dedicated, so patient, so good at what they did.” She recalled the school in general as “a warm, easy learning environment.”
It’s a description Jennifer Burke would no doubt second. When she joined the school as its principal in 1996 for a 15-year-run, she said, “Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and those first impressions of the students, staff and families increased my enthusiasm even further.” As much as the school’s faculty and its numerous academic offerings, Burke spoke warmly of the numerous activities and events, as well as day-to-day things, such as “...daily conversations with students and volunteers in the cafeteria, the hugs and stories from the younger students...junior high students on what was happening in their personal lives, and graduates who would visit over the years just to stay in touch.” She left in 2011 to be a stay-at-home mom, but said of her old job, “I am so proud to be a part of the 136-year history of this institution.”
Of the teachers at St. Joseph’s, few can match Mickie LaFata, not only for her longevity (34 years), but for her family’s involvement with the school and the church: “My mother-in-law, Stella LaFata, was school secretary, and the computer lab is named for my father-in-law, Sylvester LaFata.” She, her husband, children and grandmother have all been active at St. Joseph’s, the fourth generation of her family to do so.
She began in 1977 in the old building, moving into the newer structure when the old one was razed in the mid-eighties. Starting with a second-grade class, she moved on to many years as kindergarten teacher, switching to first grade in 2003. Her kindergarten classroom, which she designed herself, was the last in the new building to be completed. “It had lots of electrical outlets,” she said, “and a sink and bathroom geared to children. I missed all those outlets when I moved into my first-grade classroom.”
LaFata taught many students in her 34 years at St. Joseph’s, and said, “I hope I’ve touched them in some way. I’ve taught more than one generation of the same family.” She remembers one student in particular, for tragic reasons. Kelley McConnell was five years old when she joined LaFata’s kindergarten class in 1994, from there going to first grade. It was there that she developed stomach pains, and near the end of the 1995-96 school year she was diagnosed with leukemia. “It was less than a month,” said LaFata sadly, “from there to her death.” Until the school’s closing last week, a memorial plaque hung in the school lobby, reading, in part, “May our Special Angel always help us to spread our wings and fly.”
Of the some 80 students who would have attended St. Joseph’s next year, about eighty percent are going to other Catholic schools. The lion’s share of those will go to St. Agnes or St. Aloysius. A handful of other students are set to attend public schools. The passing of 136 years of school at Fifth and Eastman, in all likelihood, ultimately could not have been avoided, given the long-range trends at work. But it’s little solace to those who have given their all to the St. Joseph’s community, and in the process formed lasting bonds and associations.
Mickie LaFata expressed that as well as anybody, sitting one day last week in her all-but-empty classroom, saying, “It’s very sad. This is family...It’s our life. I don’t know how to explain it other than that.” She and her colleagues leave with sadness, but also with considerable pride: “We’ll hold our heads high. This is what we’ve taught our children.”
Will Burpee is a freelance writer from Springfield and was a crossing guard at St. Joseph’s from January 1992 to May of this year.