Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Though now closed, Tekoa Catholic school’s influence, impact continue
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the March 22, 2001 edition of the Inland Register
Among the hardy pioneers in the early history of the Pacific Northwest were Religious Sisters who came from their convents in the East to establish Catholic schools in the small towns and cities that began to spring up as people moved westward.
Many of these Religious Sisters are little-known beyond their community’s history. But the founding of St. Joseph Academy in Tekoa is perhaps typical of their work in hundreds of places across the West.
As Catholic priest missionaries founded churches in western America in the mid- to late-19th century, the letters would be sent out to bishops and heads of Religious orders in more populated areas: “Please send us teachers to start schools for our Catholic children.” Once a church was started, not many years would pass before a Catholic school would be built.
In the city of Tekoa, in Eastern Washington, the story is much the same. In nearby Desmet, Idaho, the Jesuits had started a church as well as a school, which was operated by the Sisters of Providence for the Native American children of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. As people began to settle on land west of Desmet near Hangman Creek to form the community of Tekoa, the priests could see a need for a second school. A letter was sent to the bishop of Philadelphia, asking for Sisters to come teach the children. Permission was given by the Most Rev. P.J. Ryan, D.D., in the East, and the Rt. Rev. Aegidius Junger, D.D., in Washington territory, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Glen Riddle, Penn., answered the call.
However, Tekoa’s story has one slight twist. St. Joseph Academy predates Tekoa’s own parish, Sacred Heart, by six years. There was no Catholic church or priest in Tekoa when the Sisters came — Catholics traveled to Desmet for Mass with the Jesuits. After the Sisters arrived, the Jesuits would come to Tekoa twice a week to say Mass for them, and they were often joined by Catholics in the area. In 1898 a wooden church was built down the hill from the school, and in 1903 it was moved to its present location.
Those assigned to start the school were Sister Mary Immaculate, who was appointed Superioress, and Sisters Demetria, Matthew, Illuminata, and Ethelreda. Mother Immaculate and another of the Sisters broke trail, making the long and difficult trip into a vast expanse of unknown territory. They knew some apprehension as they left behind a large settled city, with more than 100 years of history.
They arrived in Tekoa in the summer of 1892. The town, which was chartered in 1889, was named for the Biblical Tekoa, which means “city of tents.” Many of the early settlers in Washington’s Tekoa lived in tents, and perhaps a number of these tents were still in use when the Sisters arrived. In any case, the rough-hewn community was very different than the Pennsylvania locale they left. Their bustling city had paved roads and sidewalks, a fact greatly appreciated when the Sisters wrote of their “little problem” dealing with the constant mud in their new home in Washington.
The records of the Sisters’ foundation of the school gives a glimpse of their lives.Their residence was not a tent, but a four-room, “poorly built wooden abode.” It was located on a northside hill overlooking Tekoa, on property donated by John McDonald, a founding settler who was Catholic. The three other Sisters arrived later that summer, and since there were only two beds, three of them had to sleep on the floor.
They had $30 to last them through the summer until school opened in the fall. The Sisters wrote that they “felt want and poverty.” However, the generosity of local farmers, principally McDonald, who brought them produce, kept the Sisters from starving. One man brought them a wagon-load of plums. “The only place to put them,” the Sisters wrote, “was on the bedroom floor.” Their motto became “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
The Sisters used one room of the house for a chapel. Jesuit Father Charles Mackin came to the house twice a week from Desmet to celebrate Mass with them, and they were often joined by area Catholics. When they could, the Sisters traveled by horse and wagon to Desmet for Sunday Mass, trips which were not taken without some trepidation because of an encounter with a drunken man on horseback on one of their journeys.
Plans were drawn for a school building, and the elegant large structure first envisioned soon gave way to a “plain simple building” because it cost less. Father Mackin was in charge, and the Sisters said it was only through his strong faith and persistence in facing obstacles and discouragement that he was able to get the work done.
The construction had advanced enough that St. Joseph School opened Oct. 23, 1892, with 10 boarding students and 25 day students. By year’s end there were 34 boarders and and “many more day scholars.”
Misfortune struck the very next year. There was a depression, and enrollment included two boarders and nine other pupils. The low enrollment kept the Sisters from meeting their financial obligations, and they had to rely on others’ patience and generosity to get them through the year.
But the Sisters’ own faith, determination and hard work played a big part in overcoming such setbacks in establishing the school. They raised vegetables for their own use as well as to sell. They were no strangers to manual labor. Since they did not have a hired man, they had to perform all the physical tasks of their school: saw and chop the wood, pull weeds, milk the cows and tend the horses. These chores were in addition to their school-teaching duties.
As Tekoa’s economic fortunes grew, so did the number of students who came to be educated. Agriculture was the area’s main industry, which led to the siting of a railroad hub in Tekoa. Two railroads used Tekoa as a center of operations and a large number of railroad workers called Tekoa their home.
The Sisters and their school had an excellent reputation and Catholics in neighboring towns sent their young people to study at the school, which the Sisters came to call Mt. St. Joseph. Student numbers began to climb again after 1900. In 1908 Confirmation was administered to 50 pupils. By September 1926, enrollment had increased to 70 pupils, 36 of whom were boarders. Two historical sources state that at its highest, the school had about 200 boarders and day students.
From the four-room “poorly-built wooden abode” they started with, the Sisters eventually had an imposing multi-story brick building. In its early years, female students entered at the south end of the school, males on the north. The kitchen was in the basement, guests were greeted and welcomed on the main floor, the music rooms, auditorium and chapel were on the second floor, the third floor had the classrooms, and the Sisters’ and the boarders’ rooms were on the fourth floor. In 1905 a wing was added to accommodate more students.
The Sisters were called to serve God in the Religious life and they did that to the best of their ability. Their ministry went beyond the school when the Sisters became nurses in the epidemics of disease that would strike. Two Sisters at the school gave their lives because of influenza: Sister Columbana, who died in 1918, and Sister Serena, who died in 1937. In its 90-year history, the Sisters and the school were an integral part of the Tekoa community.
A number of vocations were fostered to the Religious life and the priesthood. The most notable is that of Bishop William Weigand in Sacramento, who attended the school in the last years before its closing. Another is that of Father Jim McGreevy, a priest in this diocese, a fellow student of the bishop during those years. Father McGreevy is pastor of the parishes in Ritzville, Lind, Sprague and Washtucna, and served for several years as a missionary in Guatemala.
But the endeavor was not to last. As the years passed, the number of students began to dwindle. There was no one single reason. Other towns opened their own boarding schools. School officials in both Idaho and Washington decided that Catholic school students could no longer ride public school buses.
With the advent of the automobile, people became more mobile. The Sisters did everything they could to keep the school in use. They sought accreditation for the high school in hopes of attracting more students. They sold vegetables from their garden. They gave music lessons, an important source of income in the years before the school closed.
Perhaps the biggest impact was the loss of the railroads in the 1940s. As the railroads pulled out, the railroad families left. Other businesses lost much of their customer base and they, too, had to close.
After much soul-searching discussion via correspondence between Father Roy Thelen, who was pastor at Sacred Heart Parish (and Father Cyril Feisst who succeeded him), Mother Juvenalis and Bishop Charles D. White of Spokane, permission was given for the the school to be closed. The last classes to be held were in the spring and early summer of 1950.
In 1955 the school building burned down, closing the physical chapter of Catholic education in Tekoa. For a number of years afterward, Catholic young people in Tekoa attended religious education classes held weekly at the church, and received two weeks of instruction in the summers.
The school may be closed, and its building long gone, but the dedication of the Sisters and their commitment to Mt. St. Joseph Academy will be long remembered.
For their part, the students learned respect and the orderliness of learning, along with their faith and the three “Rs”. St. Joseph students brought home all kinds of awards for their academic achievements.
In its 90-year history, the Sisters and the school were an integral part of the community. The Sisters worked unceasingly in face of many obstacles to educate and feed their students and themselves. They were single-minded in their purpose: to provide the best Catholic education possible for the students in their care.
(Information for this article comes from several sources: the archives at the Spokane Diocese and from the Sisters of St. Francis in Aston, Penn.; The Tekoa Story, From Bunchgrass to Grain, which is a local history, and from memories of the students.)
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