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. Patrick School, Pasco: ‘People are here because they love the school’

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the May 18, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

If you don’t live in the Pasco area, you might want to re-think your assumptions about the character of the Catholic community there.

For instance, “everybody knows” that Pasco’s Catholic community is about half Anglo-American and half Hispanic-American, right?

Wrong. These days, you need to factor in African-American Catholics, Philippine-American Catholics, Laotian-American Catholics, and a few Catholics from Peru, as well.

For instance, the principal of St. Patrick School, Antońio Vegas, came from Peru specifically to join the staff at Pasco’s Catholic elementary school. “When we got off the plane, Feb. 14, 2001, at the Pasco airport,” he recalls, “my wife took one look around at all this desert and said, ‘I want to go back home!’”

Fortunately, the couple decided to give it a chance, and now they’re glad they did.

When Vegas was a student at a Jesuit high school in Piura, a city in the northern part of Peru, he knew Jesuit Father Tom Bunnell, who was then on the faculty there. Later, after Vegas had finished college and graduate school, he taught at the Jesuit high school in Peru that he himself had attended, and later he became vice principal.

About four years ago, however, he contacted Father Bunnell, who by then was principal of both St. Patrick School and Tri-Cities Prep Catholic High School in Pasco. In the intervening years, Vegas had made extended visits to the U.S. He asked Father Bunnell if there might be a job for him at St. Patrick. As it happened, the school needed a mission director who was fluent in both English and Spanish. “The mission director,” Vegas explains, “is responsible for building a better foundation for the Catholic identity of the school. With the diverse community that we have, we need to work on that.”

At the same time, the school also needed someone to act as development director, to focus on the school’s financial stability, so Vegas shouldered that job, too.

Then, in October, 2005, it became apparent that Father Bunnell, who was also doing parish work, needed to bow out of the principal’s position at St. Patrick. Vegas became principal.

Pasco’s St. Patrick School has an enrollment this year of 270. The school also offers child care services for infants through grade eight, and there is a pre-school program.

The school’s community is truly diverse, Vegas says, “and that diversity is not just the color of the skin, but when people come from different cultures it is a big step for us to understand how people live and think when they come from a different culture. We have to acknowledge that all our families are different. But second, we are all a whole family. That means we care for one another. When a student isn’t here, we call to ask if he or she is okay. We are all a big family. And everybody knows each other.”

The curriculum makes a difference as well, he said. “We teach algebra up to the eighth grade, algebra 1 and 2. So when they go to Pasco High or Tri-Cities Prep they don’t have to take algebra.

“Also, we go to Mass as a school, not just as a ceremony but because we believe in what we have,” he said. “Every Friday at 8 a.m., before school starts, the whole school gets together and goes to Mass. And we celebrate the Mass. Kids read the readings, do the petitions, serve, and sing – and we have a wonderful choir! That is how we live the word of God.”

Pasco’s St. Patrick Parish was founded in 1909, but without a parish school. In 1941, that changed when Father William A. Schmitz became pastor. In 1951, the first Catholic school in the Tri-Cities opened, staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet and one lay teacher. For the first two years of its existence, the school included grades 1 through 5, with grades 6 through 8 added in subsequent years. In 1960, the school added a junior high program which included grades 7, 8, and 9. With the addition of a kindergarten, in 1970, the school reached its full development.

During the 1980s, however, enrollment decreased, which led to the closing of the junior high, and tentative plans were made to close the entire school. A fair share tuition program began in 1987, and by the 1990-91 school year enrollment began to increase again. The school’s preschool and child care programs opened in 1986, and in 1994 the preschool became a Montessori program.

In 1993, the last of the Sisters left, and for the first time the school was staffed entirely by laity. During the 1990s, as the Tri-Cities experienced population growth, the previously eliminated 7th and 8th grades were revived. Students attending from nearby Eltopia were given in-parish status.

In 1999, Father Bunnell was approved by Bishop William Skylstad and Msgr. Pedro Ramirez, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, to become the new administrator of the school. Father Bunnell incorporated the John Carroll Society to help reorganize the financially stressed school over a period of three years. Ties were preserved, however, with the Diocese of Spokane. In 2002, the John Carroll Society was asked to continue to operate and manage St. Patrick School for another two years, and it continues to manage the school today.

“There are many factors that make this school special,” says Vegas. “Each person who works here believes in the school. They don’t just come because they have a place to work. They come here because they want to. Sometimes we hire our volunteers because we know they’re dedicated already. People are here because they love the school.

“We decided that it’s a little aggressive to use the term ‘financial assistance’ when people don’t have as much money as other people to send their children to our school,” said Vegas. “We refer to ‘scholarships,’ which is money that is granted for a project, because we have to think that education is not just tuition; paying for the education is an investment that you do for your life, for the kids. We changed that word to ‘scholarship’ because we wanted to have a positive approach. There are families of need, and we have this money. We don’t want any family not to come to St. Pat’s because of that. They realize that education costs, and they need to pay as much as possible for them to pay. Of course, there are families who can pay the full cost.”

It’s important to realize that there is much about St. Patrick School that only a visit to the school will reveal, says Vegas. It can’t be talked about. You must experience it to really understand it.

“We live our Catholicism,” he said. “We live the respect. We love to see the school growing. It’s a big blessing for me to be here. I love this school, and I want my kids to come here” when they are of school age. “I will do my best for the school to be the best.”

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