By Dawn Flesland
St. Thomas School in International Falls has seen a bit of a rebirth this school year. The school opened the doors in 1927 with 200 students taught mostly by nuns. Over the course of the past 87 years, the school has fluctuated from an overflowing building of over 600 children down to today’s 40 students.
With a relatively new principal (still in college procuring a master’s degree) and a brand new pastor, St. Thomas Parish and School were ready for new beginnings this summer!
Father Ben Hadrich and I set out immediately to develop a new goal for the school. We both knew that the school would not be able to operate many more years with a lack of students, and with only 19 enrolled for the 2014-15 school year when he arrived in July, we knew something had to happen and fast. The question was, “What is the best way to grow the school?”
With a community still feeling the after-effects of the paper mill layoffs and loss of tackle manufacturing jobs, the city of International Falls was looking to rebuild and grow also.
Is our sleepy town going to become a retirement community?
What jobs can hold people and their families in our community?
Will there be enough children in our Catholic school to keep the doors open?
Father Ben’s enthusiasm for Catholicism is evident in his plans to grow the school. On many occasions Father Ben reminded us that as Catholics, we are to promote life. How can we, the parish, not support Catholic families when they follow Catholic doctrine and then cannot afford to send their children to Catholic school? The message from the pulpit was clear, and the focus of St. Thomas School was about to change.
In the past, St. Thomas School has always given financial aid and scholarships to families. The CREED (Catholic Religious Education Endowment Fund of the Diocese of Duluth) Fund sends dollars each year for Catholic schools to use as financial aid. St. Thomas School, like other schools, has used this disbursement for families that can demonstrate a financial need for tuition help. The school has also received scholarship funds from generous parish members who wanted to help the families at the school.
Something special happened this year though.
Father Ben made an appeal from the pulpit for financial aid assistance.
He specifically asked for help sending children from Catholic families that could not afford to send their children to our school. The results were phenomenal — and two-fold!
Through the generosity of our parish family, we raised enough to give several Catholic families the gift of Catholic education at our school. We had several multiple-child families that qualified financially and then received financial assistance that lowered tuition into an affordable option. The school’s student population grew from 19 children to 40 from May to August. The school went from a population of 50:50 ratio of Catholics to non-Catholics to an 80:20 ratio.
What a blessing for the families and school!
One of Father Ben’s Bible quotes he uses frequently is from the book of Mark, Chapter 10: “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” I love when Father Ben reminds us that the quote does not say: Let the children whose parents can afford it come to me!
We are thankful for all the children who are able to attend our school due to generous donors. Jesus will be present in their lives as we learn and then share the Good News!
Dawn Flesland is principal of St. Thomas School in International Falls.