Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

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

St. Mary School: ‘In every way, it’s a wonderful community’

Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 15, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

In early January, the large campus of St. Mary School on 4th Avenue in Spokane Valley was adrift with snow. Students, most wearing forest green sweatshirts, were confined to classrooms for their recesses and were busy with games, computers, conversation and crafts. Some of the first graders were making snowflakes which were much prettier than the piles of flakes everywhere outside.

St. Mary School was started in 1958 when Father Joseph Brunner was pastor and the Spokane Valley was still pretty much rural. A four-classroom building and part of a convent were built that year. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, from Beaverton, Ore., came to the teach the first four grades. The two buildings were phase one of a master plan developed by St. Mary parishioners and their pastor.

Phase two wasn’t long in starting. In 1960 a temporary building was constructed for classroom use. In 1962 work began on the second and permanent set of four classrooms. Parish men made history (at least the local newspaper) by doing all the labor on the buildings themselves. They worked evenings from 6-9 p.m. and Father Brunner worked right alongside them. One night the always-helpful Knights of Columbus roofed 5,000 square feet of building in three hours. Over 150 men donated more than 6,000 hours of labor in this second building phase.

It wasn’t only the men who worked. The women helped by raising funds to pay for materials and even parish grade school children helped with the project. The parish saved $17,000 on the project; the building was paid for when school started in 1962.

Some work remained to be done after school started, though. Jokes were made about the seventh and eighth grade classrooms having the “best air-conditioning in the county.” It was all natural, too; there were no windows or doors in the building yet.

One special note in the archives was about a Christmas gift presented to Father Brunner by the parish school children: a new set of workclothes. According to parishioners, he was a “tremendous builder,” and he had worn his other clothes to shreds.

In the 47 years since then, as the parish has grown and needs have changed, St. Mary School has undergone a number of reconfigurations. The buildings and layout remain the same but rooms were remodeled as classes and offices were added and moved. One major addition was the technology network for the school’s 100 computers.

The biggest change is in the former convent. For a time it was the parish office, but now it houses school offices, the library, the technology lab, and the preschool and educare. The music and band rooms and the science room are in the large basement.

The two school buildings, referred to as the lower (south) unit and upper (north) unit, have a practical and unique design: The two buildings are square, with one classroom in each corner and the bathrooms in the center hallway.

Grades K-3 are in the lower unit; grades 5-8 are in the upper building. Where are the fourth graders? They have their classroom in the building that houses the gym and school kitchen. The school offers hot lunch one day a week, served by a volunteer parent crew.

The warm, homey atmosphere of St. Mary School is evident just by walking into the school office. A photo of Pope John Paul II hangs on the wall in the narrow hallway, next to a much larger collage of photos of students in all kinds of activities, including the all-important eighth grade graduations. Another picture shows St. Mary’s pastor, Msgr. John Steiner, and Bishop William Skylstad, with school principal Jeanne Brown and the Levernier family at the recent dedication of the Mary Grotto.

The secretary’s office is next door to the principal’s office in the space that was once the convent’s chapel. Across the hall is the development office.Down the hall is the library and media center. Sometimes, to get into and out of an office, people play the “one-two-three, switch” game.

The building has a kitchen on the north side of the library, a useful reminder of its former convent days. A map of the place is helpful for newcomers and if asked, school staff can provide one.

The building has many windows and is bright and cheerful. The noise and chatter from the preschool and educare children down the hall also adds to the homey feel of the place.

St. Mary’s enrollment is 273 students. When school first started in 1958, enrollment in the first four grades was 114. When the next four grades were added, enrollment jumped to 226.

As with all Catholic schools, parents are deeply involved in the activities of their children and the school. Indeed, that is the reason many parents choose a Catholic education, so that they can have a more active role in their children’s school lives.

One key component of a Catholic school education is the emphasis on service to others. St. Mary’s 59 seventh and eighth graders, together with 26 parent volunteers, spend one day a month visiting senior citizens in their homes and nursing homes and helping with preschool programs in the area. Soon the fifth and sixth graders and even more parents will be involved with Meals on Wheels.

Another emphasis is on the sanctity of life. Sue Metzger, who has been involved at St. Mary for 10 years, told about making a video presentation of an ultrasound taken her daughter, Anna, at 16 weeks of life. The video was presented at parish Masses and also used to teach fetal development to the seventh graders, one of whom was Anna. Anna is now four and in preschool at St. Mary.

Dave Gregory is serving the last year of his three-year term as president of the school’s advisory council. Gregory credits his wife, Nancy, who was a long-time member of St. Mary Parish, for wanting a Catholic education for their children. As he got involved with school activities and other school families, “I found I liked it so much, I became Catholic. It’s like an extended family.”

The Gregorys chaired the St. Mary School auction last year, a big event which includes a dinner, an auction of hundreds of donated items, and a band. The auction was extremely successful; “we had the biggest year ever last year,” he said.

What Gregory sees as the “real bonus” is being able to count on the involvement of committed volunteers. “There is a tremendous, supportive group of volunteers,” he said. “When you need something, they’re right there.”

Gregory’s sentiments about the school are shared by a trio of school moms. The threesome – Molly Barr, Metzger, and Lisa Clarizio – agree that the school is “like a family, and we all pull together. We have a common goal–the education of our children.” They want their children to know their Catholic faith and especially appreciate that the school reinforces what they teach at home.

The three women are members of the St. Mary Moms in Touch, a non-denominational prayer group started by Clarizio 12-and-a-half years ago. “It’s wonderful,” Clarizio said. “We meet for an hour a week and pray for our children, the school staff and the community. We turn control over to God and it’s very effective.” Moms in Touch is an international organization with groups all over the world, she said.

Said Barr, “In every way it’s a wonderful community.”

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