August 16, 2019

Forming ‘saints and scholars’: Parish’s new $3 million education center continues 160-year focus of teaching the faith

Members of St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County and students at the faith community’s school listen on Aug. 4 as Archbishop Charles C. Thompson preaches during a liturgy to bless the parish’s new education center. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Members of St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County and students at the faith community’s school listen on Aug. 4 as Archbishop Charles C. Thompson preaches during a liturgy to bless the parish’s new education center. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

RIPLEY COUNTY—Students returned to school on Aug. 7 at St. Nicholas School in Ripley County like their predecessors reaching back to 1861 when the school was founded as a ministry of St. Nicholas Parish.

But those who began classes last week did so in a newly constructed $3 million education center, the latest change in the nearly 160-year history of St. Nicholas School.

Starting with a one-room log cabin, it moved into a brick structure in 1881. An addition to it was constructed in 1953, and modular buildings arrived at the school about 20 years ago.

Hundreds of parishioners gathered on Aug. 4 with their pastor, Father Shaun Whittington, and Archbishop Charles C. Thompson to bless the biggest change in the history of the parish’s school.

Through all the changes, the mission of St. Nicholas School has remained the same. It is there, as its motto says, to “form saints and scholars.”

“Today is an incredible day,” said Father Whittington in a homily during a Mass before the blessing. “It isn’t just about the building. It’s about the mission of our Lord Jesus, the mission that we have embraced in this community, the mission to form saints and scholars.”

During the blessing liturgy, Archbishop Thompson emphasized the mission that informs all that will happen in the new building.

“What goes on inside these walls will be the teaching of many things: math, science, geography—along with teaching the faith of our Church,” he said. “But the most important thing that will go on in this building, as well as outside of it, is how we live that faith, how we proclaim the Good News of Jesus by our own witness to a relationship with him, an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.”

The joy that members of St. Nicholas Parish experienced during the blessing of their new education center was the fruit of nearly two decades of dreams, plans, stewardship and hard work.

The late Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, St. Nicholas’ pastor in 2000, proposed to his parishioners in February of that year the construction of a new school building.

At the time, parishioner Andy Hudepohl had been married for about a year and a half and was looking forward to sending any children with which he and his wife Angie might be blessed to the school in the years to come.

Nearly 20 years later, he has had two children graduate from St. Nicholas School and two more who are currently students there.

“It’s awesome,” he said on the day of the blessing. “It’s so good to see. This building will be used for what matters to God. Without God, we wouldn’t have had it. It’s amazing to see.”

After the blessing liturgy, the education center was open for tours. Those who walked its halls viewed its nine classrooms, a space used both as a library and music room and a space that will serve as both a science, technology, engineering and mathematics laboratory and art room. It is a huge change from the 1881 building, demolished over the summer, that continued to be used until the end of the last academic year.

Sherri Kirschner, St. Nicholas School’s principal, saw the large crowd on hand for the blessing as a sign of the parish’s support for the school.

“This community is all about Catholic education,” she said. “The number of people who have come out to volunteer to make this happen has been amazing to me. It’s amazing how much this community has come together to make this happen today.”

Most of the funds were raised for the new education center in 2017 as part of phase one of St. Nicholas Parish’s Heritage Project. Phase two will involve fundraising for and construction of a $2.8 million building that will feature a new gymnasium, cafeteria and meeting rooms.

St. Nicholas seventh-grader Leanne Ludwig has heard about the dreams of the new education center all her life. So, she was overflowing with joy on the day when it was blessed.

“This school building was like a star way out in the universe for the past 20 years,” Leanne said. “But in the past couple of years, it’s been like a shooting star. It’s just completely changed the campus. God has answered so many prayers. It’s been such a blessing to be a part of it.”

Seeing so many of her fellow parishioners contribute to its construction has affected her faith.

“I’ve spent more time praying about [the school],” Leanne said. “It really means a lot that all these people really cared so much about this and what’s going to happen in the school building. I’m so excited to be taught my faith in there and grow in my faith here.”

Leanne’s parents were both students at St. Nicholas School and are glad to have their daughter and two other children enrolled there.

“St. Nicholas makes you feel part of a family,” said Christy Ludwig, Leanne’s mother. “They teach the faith. And every day, they practice the faith. That’s what’s important. They talk about Jesus all the time. What goes on inside the walls is amazing.”

Much more will happen inside the new education center than the teaching of St. Nicholas School students. The parish’s many ministries will also utilize it. That is a primary reason the building was called an education center rather than a school.

That impressed archdiocesan school superintendent Gina Fleming, who attended the blessing liturgy with Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan vicar general, and archdiocesan chancellor Annette “Mickey” Lentz.

Fleming also took note of the fact that a rural parish with less than 500 households took on a construction project that often only happens in much larger faith communities in suburban or urban areas.

“What this community has proven is that, with God’s grace and the determination of his people, so many amazing things can happen,” said Fleming. “The inspiration that this community has provided in terms of growth of ministry is one that can be replicated anywhere with God’s grace and the fortitude of the people.”
 

(For more information about St. Nicholas Parish and its Heritage Project, go to stnicholas-sunman.org/heritage-project.)

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