May 03, 2007

Kersten Column on St. Agnes H.S.

A fan and supporter of St. Agnes and a reader of this blog alerted me to Katherine Kersten's column in the StarTribune today:

At this time of year, you stop counting the pro sports teams, big corporations and malls that claim to be irreplaceable Minnesota institutions, and so entitled to hefty public subsidies. But the hungry crowd at the Capitol doesn't include one truly indispensable institution -- St. Agnes High School, a landmark in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood since 1938.

St. Agnes is a victim of the financial and enrollment squeeze that is hitting inner-city Catholic schools around the country. Eighty-five percent of its 200 high school students and 220 K-8 students receive tuition assistance, and in recent years the parish that operates the schools has incurred a debt of more than $1 million in subsidizing them.

On May 8, a decision will be made to close the high school unless something dramatic happens to improve the financial situation, says the Rev. John Ubel, St. Agnes Church pastor and school superintendent. The grade school will stay open.

Is St. Agnes worth saving?

Yes, says Mary Collins, whose daughter Tomica graduated last year. Collins is a single mother of nine.

They were adopted and born with medical problems. Each attended St. Agnes at some point, and four graduated from the high school.

"My kids would have been lost in a large public school," says Collins, who credits her children's success to scholarships from St. Agnes. "My kids needed a strict but loving environment, and a spiritual education that would help them grow up to be a whole person," she says.

At St. Agnes, Collins adds, teachers worked tirelessly in and out of class to give her kids the academic support and confidence they needed. Last year, Tomica capped her high school career by being chosen homecoming queen.

Today, St. Agnes families come not only from the inner city but also from 60 ZIP codes, including Ham Lake, North Branch and Somerset, Wis., according to Ubel.

David Johnson, who teaches second grade at St. Agnes and has directed the school's musicals for almost 20 years, embodies the school's rich tradition. His grandparents were founding members of St. Agnes Church in 1888, and his mother attended the grade school, which was founded in those early years. Johnson's father wanted him to go to a public high school, so Johnson paid his freshman-year tuition himself. He earned $95, a substantial amount at the time. He graduated 50 years ago.

Today, says Johnson, the school still offers what attracted him back then -- a strong religious environment, high academic standards and dedicated teachers such as Sister Patrice, a teacher who inspired a love of the stage that still nourishes him. Johnson is directing the high school's current musical extravaganza, the Broadway hit "Beauty and the Beast."

Johnson and his wife, Nancy, have 12 children; six of their own and six they have adopted, including a group of four sisters and two with special needs. Nancy, a former St. Agnes first-grade teacher, is the show's assistant director. Johnson's son Andrew, a 1997 St. Agnes graduate, designed the set, and three other offspring who are recent graduates do make-up or serve on the stage crew. Two Johnson children perform in the show.

Other families have also pitched in to make "Beauty and the Beast" a reality. Parents built the elaborate set, which includes a forest that descends from the ceiling and an enchanted castle moved by living gargoyles. And they sewed many of the costumes, including 120 peasant outfits. "One grandmother sewed 71 pirate shirts," marvels Johnson.

Some young cast members have opened their piggy banks as well. Gregory Fink, a 7-year-old homeschooler in the children's chorus, exemplifies their dedication, says Johnson. After hearing of the school's plight, the boy donated his entire savings of $31 to a save-the-school fund, along with $44 he earned last weekend at a lemonade stand. Another generous donor has also stepped forward to aid St. Agnes' campaign for survival. On Monday, the school announced an anonymous gift of $500,000 from a benefactor who wants to encourage other supporters' gifts.

Tonight, St. Agnes will stage a free performance of "Beauty and the Beast." The kids will be singing their hearts out and passing the hat, in hopes of saving their school.

You can be sure that anxious St. Agnes families are saying lots of prayers: Prayers for miracles, prayers for "angels."--Katherine Kersten


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, a $500,000 donation!

May 03, 2007 3:28 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

God bless that person!~
I hope it's matched and then some!
St. Scholastica, pray for them.

May 03, 2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Boy you are really poaching on my "news turf."

You beat me to the Kersten column by about five hours, and you totally beat me on our new Archbishop's interview with the person from The Catholic Spirit. She looks like she might be the person to watch around here, news-wise. And she's brand new at it.

Maybe I'll have to make an unfriendly offer to purchase your RDC blog and arrange a leveraged buyout and hire you and your staff at three times what you are making now. How does that sound?

May 03, 2007 9:32 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Sorry, Ray, no sale!

May 04, 2007 8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The St Agnes site reports:

"Saint Agnes Receives $500,000 Challenge Gift ... Through the tremendous generosity of an anonymous donor, Saint Agnes High School is poised to receive a $500,000 challenge gift."

Does that mean:

- The donor will match all contributions up to $500,000 (e.g. if $200,000 is raised, he/she will match the $200,000).

- The $500,000 donation is only made if a total of $500,000 is raised from other sources.

- The $500,000 is made no matter what, but the donor would like to challenge others to contribute.

The words "poised to receive" would seem to indicate one of the first two.

May 04, 2007 8:15 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I would think it's the third.
No charitable, Christian person would say, "I'll give you half a mil, but only if you saps can sell enough cupcakes at the bake sale to match it."
But stranger things have happened, I suppose.
At any rate, I hope it's the third.

May 04, 2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Anon: It's the third option.

May 04, 2007 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Our many prayers and efforts have been answered! Tuesday, May 08, 2007 Father Ubel announced at a special assembly that the Saint Agnes High School would remain open. We have had one large individual donation of $1,562,442 to create a new Saint Agnes Schools endowment fund. We have also had several anonymous large donations and many others. In total we were able to raise over $3,000,000. In addition, our enrollment has increased by 67 students!!

Thank you to everyone for all your support!!

Please continue to pray as we persist in these efforts over the next years. Any donations, great or small, will help.

In celebration of this wonderful news Archbishop Flynn has declared Friday, May 11 a day off. There will be no school that day. Athletic teams will still participate in their activities Friday.

May 08, 2007 8:18 PM  

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