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. Charles School: an outreach of the parish to present the faith

Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the March 16, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Eugene Tracy (left) is pastor of St. Charles Parish. He says the parish’s school helps present the faith to the uncatechized. (IR photo)

It was Catholic Schools Week 2006, and a significant part of the celebration at Spokane’s St. Charles School was the inclusion of three 15-minute prayer/reflection times in each day’s schedule for the week. When 11:30 a.m. rolled around, it was time for the second of the day’s prayer/reflections. The students, some 200 of them – the 100 or so preschoolers and kindergarteners don’t attend – gradually and quietly entered the church, many paired up as older/younger student “buddies.” Each student genuflected respectfully toward the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle behind the altar, the younger ones taking their cue from the older students. Clearly, these youngsters are being taught how to behave in church. Each one slipped into a pew and waited for the brief service to begin.

St. Charles School, in north Spokane, just west of the Shadle Shopping Center, is a prime example of how Catholic schools integrate religious education and faith formation into the regular school curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic (not to mention computer-facilitated learning). Students at St. Charles Catholic School don’t just talk about religion, although they do that, too. They experience religion at its most fundamental level through shared prayer and reflection.

The parish school actually came into existence before the parish church. In the fall of 1951, the school opened for the first four grades, and for many years the school gymnasium doubled as the parish church. The first teachers were members of the Sisters of St. Francis, from Glen Riddle, Pa. Thanks to the devotion and charity of the Sisters, and the support of the parish community, no tuition was charged, only a fee for books. The first class of eighth graders, 38 of them, graduated from St. Charles in May, 1956. The school prospered, and at one point in the late 1950s there were more than 700 students enrolled in grades one through eight.

With a steady decline in their numbers during the 1970s, however, by 1992 there were no Sisters left at St. Charles. Since then, lay faculty and administrators have ably maintained and guided the school’s educational mission.

In 1977, St. Charles added a half-day kindergarten program, and in 1991 kindergarten students had an option of a full day or half-day program. Since 1992, however, the kindergarten program has been an all-day program. In 1987, the school began providing extended care services, and in 1992 an all-day preschool program began. Today there is a class for 3-year-olds and two classes for 4-year-olds.

St. Charles principal Skip Bonuccelli is well into his second year at St. Charles after 31 years as both a teacher and administrator in Spokane Valley’s Central Valley School District. “I’m a life-long Catholic,” Bonuccelli says, “and I attended St. John Vianney School myself, back in the 1950s – born and raised in the Spokane Valley.”

Bonuccelli related the story of a parent who told him why her children are at St. Charles. “She said, ‘The reason I’m here is because St. Charles is a safety net for my family. I can leave them in the morning, I can go and do my job, I can come back and pick them up in the afternoon, knowing that I don’t have to transport them, knowing that they’re taken care of the entire day, and they’re safe. The peace of mind that gives me is phenomenal.’”

Bonuccelli needs only the briefest moment to consider the question of what makes St. Charles unique: “I think if anything really distinguishes the school from a lot of other places, it would be the phenomenal dedication of the volunteers. Our parent community is very supportive. We have over-achievers who go above and beyond, and those who help where they can. They have absolutely no problem in directing me with regard to activities we’re doing, and I’m just captivated by their spirit. They really, truly are involved in their kids’ lives, and when you see parents involved in kids’ lives, that’s a big deal.”

This year, St. Charles is trying to involve parents in more school activities. “We have our advisory council,” Bonuccelli said, “which is really a great group of people, which we expanded this year. We’re talking about how we can better market the school, how we can better have outreach to parents in the community, and we’re meeting soon to decide on the next steps. We want to get our numbers up, and I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize that St. Charles is affordable and that it’s a great place for the kids to be. If you look at your family values, and you look at our mission and what our values are, and if you look at the portrait of a St. Charles student, it all fits together, and people feel really good about that.”

The school’s biggest fund-raising success each year is its annual auction. “Each year we have specific projects that we ask people to donate to,” Bonuccelli said. “This year it’s a music program and a resource room. The other thing is religion books. We really need to update our religion books. So we’re looking for funding to help pay for that. We also need to replace all of our computers in the computer lab. We’re trying to go outside the St. Charles community instead of constantly coming back to our folks, who can only afford so much. We need to widen the opportunities for people to give.

The school currently is looking for a volunteer development director. “So we’re looking maybe at having someone, next year, fill that position as part of a tuition adjustment.”

It’s not unusual for kids to leave public schools in the area to come to St. Charles “for safety reasons, for other issues [related to] how they’re being treated in another school,” said Bonuccelli. “That’s been interesting to me, that we’re picking up some kids that have had some problems in other schools. We’re not the panacea, by any means, but we are an alternative.”

The school is a living part of the parish community. The office for both school and parish is one and the same. “When you come in that door,” Bonuccelli said, “you can pay tuition and you can do anything having to do with the parish, too. You can pay tuition, you can pay milk money, and you can get holy cards and Mass cards, and a parish directory, and if you need to see Father, we’ll hook you right up with him. It all comes out of one office.”

“Father” is St. Charles Parish’s pastor, Father Eugene Tracy, ably assisted by Deacon John Sicilia. “They work with kids on sacramental preparation,” Bonucelli says, “along with the teachers. Father will be visiting classrooms on religion and talking to kids, helping kids to ask questions, in smaller groups, about their faith, and get answers that everybody answers at that grade level.

“The three of us meet once a week to talk about issues. We meet more often than that if necessary. My relationship with Father Tracy and Deacon John is collegial in all ways. I couldn’t ask for a better pastor to work for. He’s got a lot of wisdom because, I think, of his earlier life in the accounting business. And Deacon John brings a unique perspective as a deacon for a long time. There is no doubt in my mind that Father Tracy wants this school to thrive. And the same way with Deacon John.”

Father Eugene Tracy sums up the relationship between parish and school at St. Charles: “I see the school as a mission of the parish. When I was growing up, the parish school was an arm of the parish ... to preserve the faith in our families, to preserve the faith from attack not so much from the culture at large but from the non-Catholic influences in the public schools. Now, at least in this part of town, I see the parish schools as an outreach activity of the parish to present the faith to the uncatechized, rather than to preserve the faith.”

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