100 YEARS OF EXCELLENCE AND FORMING VIRTUOUS YOUNG SAINTS
As St. Peter Catholic School in North St. Paul celebrates its centennial, teachers, staff, students, parents and alumni are lauding its successful formation of generations of moral leaders who are critical thinkers.
When North St. Paul was beginning to take shape around 1887, the area’s Catholic faithful — around 60 families — celebrated Mass in several buildings until 1915, when parishioners built a Gothic-style brick church on the lot next to the old church at the corner of 16th and Margaret Street. In 1916, the old church was converted into North St. Paul’s first parochial school.
Today, St. Peter has 222 students in preschool through eighth grade. It’s close to North St. Paul’s antique shops, VFW hall and iconic 40-foot snowman statue. At noon, the church’s Angelus bells toll in sync with Main Street’s lunch hour siren — a nod to the intertwining history of the parish and town.
Jeff Schmidt can hear the bells and siren from his home — half a block from St. Peter, where he graduated in 1990. Catholic education has been a tradition in his family since his ancestors emigrated from Germany in the 1880s.
“Catholic education shaped who my ancestors are and has kept the faith in my life,” he said.
Believing small towns foster strong families, he and his wife decided to buy a house in the shadow of St. Peter’s steeple.
Their son, Zach, a fourth-grader, said, “I feel like my family is part of the history at St. Peter, and I want to bring my kids here, so they can be a part of the history.”
The sentiments in a video produced to celebrate St. Peter’s centennial highlight its culture.
“The school is a wonderful welcoming environment and always holds children to higher standards,” said Jake Koller, class of 1977.
Forming virtuous saints
The teachings of the Church in Catholic schools provide important tools to deliver character and spiritual formation. The school’s halls are studded with banners listing Catholic virtues. In the spirit of the apostle Peter, the school has “The Rock Award” — bestowed on students demonstrating virtuous lives.
“We are forming virtuous saints for the future who can think clearly,” said Principal Alison Dahlman.
Father William Deziel, St. Peter’s pastor, said that God wants people’s total development — “He wants us to grow in goodness and virtue, and this is what the school does.”
The children celebrate Mass weekly and visit the Eucharistic adoration chapel regularly. Each Monday at convocation, they read Scripture and sing the school song.
Like its patron saint who held the keys to the Church, St. Peter believes it holds the key to success.
“One of the best things about Catholic education is having the opportunity to really help kids become the person they are destined to be,” said Georgia Randall, who teaches seventh and eighth grades.
First-grade teacher Amy (Shell) Hering (class of 1990), said, “I can talk about morals and virtues that are so important to form students into a person of Christ.”
Schmidt, the parent, believes graduates have the courage to lead with self-confidence and go into the world feeling like they can accomplish anything.
Socrates in the classroom
One of the ways St. Peter shapes future leaders is by using the Socratic seminar in the classroom. This method of teaching dates back to ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, but emphasizes 21st century skills: critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration.
The seminar is teacher guided, but student led. Students read the lesson and then prepare to discuss it using open-ended questions. They’re required to find evidence supporting their points and analyze the information — like a scavenger hunt for bits of knowledge. This method is a natural scaffold for all learners. Stronger students become adept at navigating the messier world of abstract thinking, while others get a chance to prepare thoughts before discussion.
And there’s a bonus: The seminar adds to the school’s curriculum by honoring the Catholic intellectual tradition. The discussion questions draw young minds to the truth about the human condition, faith and God.
David Heintz, who teaches fifth- through eighth-grade religion, uses the seminar about once a week. He encourages live debates where students give reasons for their beliefs. Currently, they are discussing C.S. Lewis’ books, “The Great Divorce” and “The Screwtape Letters.”
“What I like about the Socratic seminar is that kids are on the spot to defend their faith,” he said, adding, “It encourages all students to participate civilly and with respect.”
Fifth-grader Maddie Peterson said it’s good for students to speak their minds in the seminar.
“We learn to negotiate,” she said.
Her brother, Zac, a sixth-grader, said they learn from other people’s ideas and points of view, which will help them engage in thoughtful discussions later on.
‘A Century of Unlocking Potential’
During this milestone year, St. Peter’s school motto is “A Century of Unlocking Potential.” On Aug. 27, the parish-school community marked its rich history with a centennial celebration. They started with a Mass followed by a party worthy of its 100th anniversary, which the community rallied around. Alumni who own local businesses donated supplies, and the band, Any Day Now, featuring three St. Peter parents, performed. Even the mayor of North St. Paul, alum Mike Kuehn, supported the celebration.
Dahlman observed the conversation during the event and was impressed with the dedication to Catholic education that the graduates carry with them.
“They had such fond and warm memories,” she said.