by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
Sustaining a relationship across 165 years is a remarkable achievement. It takes a lot of love, deep commitment and a charism responsive to changing times.
Case in point and cause to celebrate: the ongoing partnership of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth with Xavier School that is marking the 165th anniversary of Catholic education in Leavenworth starting this fall.
Sister Mary Jane Schmitz, the liaison between the SCL motherhouse and Ross Hall and the school, said that in some respects, Xavier seems to be even more Catholic than when the Sisters were the faculty and staff.
“The lay leadership and teachers make such an effort to have a Christ-centered focus and observe Catholic traditions,” she explained.
The school’s mission is “to keep Christ as the center of our daily lives and to care for one another in a loving and safe learning environment.” The caring dimension extends to the broader surrounding community and in a special way to the SCLs.
Whereas the Sisters founded the school and staffed it across many years of service, now the lay faculty, administration and board of trustees are striving to keep the SCL charism alive and to be more of a presence to the Sisters.
Prayer buddies, pen pals
Initiated by the school, the Prayer Buddy program is an outstanding example of this and a popular interaction between students and the SCLs. Each student has a designated SCL prayer buddy drawn from Sisters living at the motherhouse and Ross Hall and those residing in the Lansing-Leavenworth area.
Everyone agrees to pray daily for her/his respective prayer buddy. A pen pal program predated the prayer initiative, and some SCLs and students continue to correspond with greeting cards and notes of encouragement.
Janet Meyer, who has taught fourth grade at Xavier since 1989, said, “The students love hearing from their prayer buddies.”
Sadie Schubert, a Xavier alumna and now social studies and science teacher at the school, recalled the poignant story of one Sister’s dying wish to let her student prayer buddy know that the SCL would be interceding for the student from the “other side.”
Remembering Mother Xavier, SCL founder
Despite limitations due to the pandemic, Mother Xavier Ross Week has remained a popular observance that keeps alive the memory of the SCL founder and the spirit of the SCLs. During the pandemic, the students marched parade-style around the motherhouse and Ross Hall, carrying signs and banners. Sisters stood at their windows or on outside balconies. Normally, students would have been inside the buildings, singing for the Sisters.
Another regular feature of the week that commemorates the SCL founder has been a presentation by Sister Elizabeth Skalicky dressed as Mother Xavier as she recounts the religious community’s founding in Leavenworth in 1858.
Schubert remembered performing songs and skits in Ross Hall as a young student at Xavier. She believes it’s important that the students have the opportunity to experience the Sisters and learn their stories.
“Children are naturally focused on themselves. In trying to expand their worldview, the Sisters are a great resource,” she said. “The Sisters have a spirit of selflessness; they look at the world beyond themselves. It’s meaningful for our students to understand this.”
During the 2022 Mother Xavier Ross Week, students honored their prayer buddies through a service project. The school identified needs of charities with which the SCLs are involved. Preschoolers through second graders collected snacks for the Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope homeless shelter; third through fifth graders donated toiletry items for patients of Saint Vincent Clinic; and sixth through eighth graders provided food products for Catholic Charities. Students made all donations in honor of their SCL prayer buddies.
Sister Elizabeth attributed the vitality of the SCL charism at Xavier to the teachers, many of whom have long tenure with the school and some of whom taught there when SCLs were among faculty and staff. She gratefully acknowledged Sister Mary Jane’s role in helping keep the Sisters and students connected. Both SCLs have long and strong ties with Xavier. They resumed volunteering at the school once COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed.
Faith and service important at Xavier
Throughout the academic year, Xavier elementary students are organized into “faith families” with representation from each grade. The faith families are named after saints and identified by different colors of T-shirts. Weather permitting, the kindergartners through eighth graders walk in their respective faith families to weekly Mass in Annunciation Chapel on the nearby SCL motherhouse campus.
Faith families also compete in the annual “Souper Bowl” begun by Sister Mary Jane. They collect cans of soup for the local Catholic Charities food pantry. Students meet in their faith families monthly for an activity, such as reading a favorite book, making banners or participating in a field day. Janelle Hartegan, principal, explained that the faith family arrangement allows for building community and cultivating leadership and mentorship.
With Catholic identity a leading strategic imperative of the Xavier board of trustees, chairman Mike Cyr sees this occurring through relationships with the SCLs and their sponsored works. Sisters Nancy Bauman and Elizabeth Youngs serve on the Xavier board. The school is strengthening ties with the University of Saint Mary with college students assisting with programs and projects, and doing their student teaching at the elementary school. Xavier students continue a “Pennies for Peru” competition to raise funds for SCL missions in Peru.
Cyr considers Xavier students the school’s best ambassadors and the best evangelists for Catholic education. He gives equal praise to the teachers for instilling strong moral principles and practicing what they teach daily. Many of the teachers and staff have long tenure with Xavier, and several have children and even grandchildren who have attended or are currently in the school.
Traci Baker, administrative assistant for the past 15 years, credits the school for providing students with a strong faith foundation. Cindi Thiele, with Xavier for 27 years and serving as a technology specialist and librarian, believes it’s important that the students connect the Sisters with the heritage and tradition of Catholic education in Leavenworth.
Since she began teaching at Xavier, Janet Meyer has identified the SCLs as strong women — praying and mentoring the young faculty members. She wants the students to have the continued experience of encountering these inspiring women of faith.
Students of all ages engaged
At one time, Xavier School occupied four separate sites in Leavenworth. Since 2011, it’s been consolidated to two locations — the elementary school to the west of the motherhouse campus and the preschool located in the former Sacred Heart Parish School building.
Shannon Holcomb, administrator of the preschool and extended care services, said that the younger students participate in different service and spiritual activities at age-appropriate levels.
For these children, there’s a strong emphasis on faith formation with regular Bible study, catechesis, Mass attendance and observance of liturgical seasons.
The generational connections provided by student interactions with the SCLs are also valuable. Holcomb noted that 60% or more of students in the preschool come from military families who live at a distance from their families of origin.
“It’s so important that our students know there is someone out there who cares for us and who is praying for us,” she said of the SCLs. “I believe our students have a true understanding of what this means.”
From her experience, Sister Mary Jane concluded, “I’m prejudiced, but I’m impressed with our school, our students and our teachers.”
This article originally appeared in “Voices,” a publication of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. It is reprinted with permission.