Archdiocesan elementary school celebrates 125th anniversary
by Marc and Julie Anderson
AXTELL — Given the mobility of today’s society, it’s hard to imagine a place where children attend the same grade school as their parents, let alone their grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, Chelsea, Jordyn and Kylie Smith are three girls who have or are doing just that.
Their great-grandmother, Irene Heinen, was the first of four generations to attend St. Michael Elementary School in Axtell, just a few miles from the Kansas-Nebraska border. After Irene came their grandfather Darrell Heinen. And then, after he grew up, married and had kids of his own, their mother Amy (Heinen) Smith was one of the next generation. Now, Amy sits on the school board, and two of her three daughters, Jordyn and Kylie, are students there. Her oldest daughter Chelsea graduated three years ago.
Their family’s story was just one of several celebrated Jan. 25 during a special Mass, luncheon and open house held to celebrate the 125th anniversary of St. Michael School. All of the events were timed with the beginning of Catholic Schools Week, which runs this year from Jan. 25-31. This year’s theme is: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann presided at the Mass, and pastor Father Albert Hauser OSB, and Father Jim Shaughnessy — a former student and parishioner now serving as pastor of St. Gregory Church in nearby Marysville — concelebrated.
At age 11, Jordyn is one of the younger members of the St. Michael community, and she said she just loves the school for its size.
“It’s kind of fun. It’s small. You know everyone, and everyone is your friend,” said Jordyn, adding that if she were in the public school system, she would not know as many of her classmates and schoolmates.
Indeed, the entire current enrollment of St. Michael School sits at 24 students in three combined classes for first- through sixth-graders.
Another reason Jordyn said she likes St. Michael School is because she gets to put God first, not just on Sundays, but each and every day. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the students go to Mass together. During the week, the students are encouraged to read commentaries on the upcoming or previous week’s Gospel reading to help them understand it better.
Eight-year-old Kylie Smith is a second-grader and is preparing for her first Communion later this year. Her mother said she was quite excited to learn in her religion class that one plus one plus one is equal to one.
“One plus one plus one equals one,” Kylie said, jumping with excitement as she explained the concept of the Trinity to her mother yet again, just prior to the luncheon.
“We get to go to Mass,” Kylie said earlier when asked about one of her favorite reasons for being at St. Michael’s.
Sitting on the school board provides Amy with a different perspective of the same school she attended as a child, but it’s one she said she thoroughly enjoys.
“We have lots of support,” she said. “You don’t have to sell [the school] when you have good teachers.”
Much of the financial support the school receives is from parishioners, many of whom attended the school themselves or have grandchildren or great-grandchildren in the school.
The Heinens’ ties to the school, though, are not necessarily completely unusual. Axtell is a rural community of 406 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. Like so many other rural communities in the northeastern region of
Kansas, generations of families have farmed the same fields, belonged to the same churches and attended the same schools.
It’s the same sense of family and community for which Archbishop Naumann gave thanks during his homily as he discussed the importance of Catholic schools and strong Catholic families.
“It’s important to celebrate anniversaries,” the archbishop said, adding that anniversaries allow people the opportunity to give thanks for the many blessings of years past, but that they also offer everyone a chance to recommit themselves to the same sense of purpose.
In the case of Catholic schools, that purpose is not only to educate and prepare students for the real world, including college and future professions, but, more importantly, the archbishop said, to encourage students to discern God’s specific mission for their own lives — whether it be as a priest, a consecrated religious, a married person or as a professional.
“That’s the great mission of our Catholic schools,” the archbishop said.