Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Says St. Thomas More principal, ‘The reality for me is that it has always been about the kids ... about how we get them to grow up’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Nov. 16, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Spokane’s St. Thomas More School “is one of the integral ministries” of its parish, said Father Leonard Forsmann, pastor. “The parish is a community.” (IR photo)
A visitor to Spokane’s St. Thomas More School, on the city’s far north side, can’t help but be struck by the quiet but lively atmosphere that seems to permeate the school’s classrooms and halls. Little students with piping voices and lots of squirms and bounces in them, wearing the school’s distinctive red and black uniform, smile happily when an observer enters their classroom. Older students, gangly of limb, recently tall and growing taller, drop by the office, poised and articulate, to take care of business. It’s a story that began almost 50 years ago.
In the early- to mid-1950s, Spokane’s north side residential areas grew dramatically, so in late August of 1957, Bishop Bernard J. Topel established a new parish there, named for St. Thomas More, the 15th- and 16th-century English “man for all seasons” who died a martyr for his refusal to obey King Henry VIII rather than his conscience. The founding pastor was Father Paul A. Wenning (d. 2003). The first Masses for the new parish were celebrated at Lynwood Elementary School, and the rectory was a home now owned and occupied by St. Thomas More parishioners on nearby Excell Drive. Building plans called for a new combination church and multi-purpose building, a rectory, and a four-classroom school. Groundbreaking took place in March of 1958.
By March of 1962, the new rectory was completed and construction began on the school, which was ready for the first students in September of that year. The school began with grades 5 through 8, with Dominican Sisters as the first teachers. Sister Birgitta, the first principal, also taught a combined 7th and 8th grade class. Sister Joan taught the 6th grade, Sister Fideles taught 5th grade, and the following year Mr. Ruddy was hired to teach a separate 7th grade class, with Sister Birgitta continuing to teach the 8th grade. Construction on another four classrooms and a library began in March of 1967, and they were ready for occupancy the following September, which made it possible for the school to accept students in all eight grades.
In 1987, the parish celebrated the completion of a brand new church. This freed up the old building for the school to use, after remodeling, as a gymnasium, storage space, library, and a music room.
Enrollment at the school declined in the early 1970s, but by 1990 the numbers had increased dramatically. Today, with the preschool – added in 2003 – included, the school welcomes more than 300 students each school day. The school also has an extended care program which enables single parent families and families with both parents working outside the home to have before and after school care for their children enrolled. Today the school has one classroom for each of the eight grades, plus a preschool program and an extended care program for older students.
St. Thomas More’s principal for the past seven years has been Deacon Doug Banks, who notes proudly that in September of 2007 both the parish and the school will celebrate their 50th anniversary. “The school actually began a year or two after the parish,” he said, “but we’re going to celebrate the anniversaries as one since the school and parish go together.”
The parish’s pastor, Father Leonard Forsmann, seconds that observation. “The school is one of the integral ministries of the parish,” he said. “The parish is a community, we come together, we work together, we study together, we learn together, we pray together. We provide a number of different programs for education, for prayer, for all kinds of things, and the school is integral to that ministry.”
The parish-school connection has a financial element, too, of course. “I think the parish contributes 27 percent of our income, on a regular basis, to the school,” Father Forsmann said. “The parish and the school cooperate on lots of things, such as janitors and maintenance people. The parish Religious Education program uses the school for various things, and the school uses the basement of the office building for band practice. There is a lot of reciprocal activity back and forth.”
Deacon Doug Banks, St. Thoms More’s principal, began teaching at the school in 1984, after teaching at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep High School for four years. He earned a B.A. in Education from the University of Montana and an M.A. in Administration from Whitworth College. He was ordained a deacon in June of 2005.
“Along with a lot of the other Catholic schools,” Deacon Banks said, “St. Thomas More’s philosophy is that this is a community, not a business. We are a ministry of the parish, and we work hand-in-hand with the parish. Our students provide services to the parish such as handling the coffee-and-donuts program after Sunday Masses and involvement with the Family-to-Family outreach program to families in Guatemala.”
Each grade takes responsibility for a different charitable activity. “Fifth grade always visits and works with the House of Charity (in downtown Spokane),” said Deacon Banks. “Seventh and eighth grades have always worked with Senior Chores (a service of Catholic Charities in Spokane). Our Guatemala program is with our first and second graders. They have cupcake sales, and so forth, and they actually sponsor a family in Guatemala through the Family to Family program. They earn enough to give $30 a month to support their family, and they earn enough so they can do this even during the summer months. The essence of the program here in the school is to look at the charitable works of the universal church, not just here in Spokane. Third and fourth grades provide students to help with coffee and donut sales after the Sunday Masses. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, we gave a percentage of our Fun Run earnings to relief efforts through Catholic Charities. The same happened after 9/11. We always work through Catholic Charities.”
Deacon Banks’s long-term commitment to Catholic education is clearly evident. The role of principal, however, brings unique challenges. “The amount of paperwork that comes at you, and the things that separate you from the people, is pretty huge,” he said. “You really have to fight to continue to be part of what goes on around you, with the people and the kids.”
He stays in touch by teaching a history class for the eighth grade, plus he sets aside times during each school day when he makes no appointments with anyone, “no matter what,” and he uses this time to visit classrooms. “I also monitor the playground during the lunchtime recess,” he said.
“The reality for me is that it has always been about the kids. It has always been about how we get them to grow up, of course gaining knowledge, but most importantly learning about themselves and how they are going to be good people to other people. If you can accomplish that, and they can feel an honest success in their lives in that direction, then I think we’ve made a big difference. I’ve always seen this as a ministry, as a calling or as a vocation. I’ve never seen it as a job.”
Perhaps, however, the most important testimony about the value of a school comes from parents whose children are enrolled there.
Parishioners Theresa and Eric Groshoff have three children at the school, one in fourth grade, the second in second grade, and the third in kindergarten. “Our fourth grader has been at St. Thomas More since kindergarten,” said Theresa Groshoff, “and we couldn’t be happier. My husband and I are very strong in our Catholic faith, and we are so pleased that we see that in all areas of the school. It’s also very family oriented. There is also a strong volunteer force of parents, and it’s not mandatory, it’s something that parents do on their own accord, which I find refreshing and inspirational, and that makes for a strong community in the school.”
Cathy and Joe Luchini also are pleased with their experience at St. Thomas More. The Luchinis are members of the parish, and they have three children enrolled in the school, in fourth, sixth, and eighth grades. This is the family’s ninth year there.
“I can’t say enough good things about it,” said Cathy. “It’s everything we had hoped for our children. I think the quality of the education at St. Thomas More is superior, and not only that but it was important for us to have our children thrive and grow in a Catholic Christian environment. We’ve been very pleased. The (school’s) philosophy is to help each child grow intellectually, and spiritually, and socially, and I feel that they do that quite well. I’ve just been very impressed.”