“Jesus lives here.” That was one of the responses that we received from our students when we asked them to reflect on their experience of St. Adalbert School and what makes it special. That first grader stated succinctly, and with a wisdom revealed only to children, why our educational mission at St. Adalbert’s matters. Children need to know that Jesus is an integral part of their life and their education.
St. Adalbert School is a beacon of faith and hope for children growing up in a very tough environment. The school is situated on the West Side of South Bend, in one of the poorest areas of town, with some of the worst public schools in a state known for failing schools. Foreclosed houses and shuttered businesses are a common sight in their neighborhoods. The vast majority of the children speak Spanish at home, as they strive to master English in school. If they graduate from high school, they may be the first ones in their family to do so. You might say that the odds are stacked against them. But, that is when hope is most needed.
From its foundation in 1911, St. Adalbert’s has been an anchor for the immigrant children of the West Side. In the early years, the school offered bilingual education – in Polish and English. As the Polish families gradually moved away, the parish and the school both fell on hard times. By 2002 the average age of the St. Adalbert’s parishioners was 77 years old. Obviously, there were very few parish families with children to send to the school. However, that same year St. Stephen’s – a young, vibrant, Latino parish on the West Side – had to be closed for financial reasons.
Initially, all of the St. Stephen’s parishioners were invited to join St. Casimir Parish, because it, like St. Stephen’s, was staffed by Holy Cross religious. However, the demographics of St. Casimir were similar to those of St. Adalbert, and their school had closed decades ago. The following year, 2003, the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend asked Holy Cross to accept responsibility for St. Adalbert’s, as well. Almost overnight, St. Casimir and St. Adalbert became predominantly Latino parishes, and St. Adalbert School became the new Latino school on the West Side.
This is the type of ministry that Blessed Basil Moreau, whose feast we celebrated on January 20, envisioned for Holy Cross – in a school, a parish and a neighborhood where we really make a difference. As he wrote in Christian Education, “If at times you show preference to any young people, they should be the poor, those who have no one else to show them preference, those who have the least knowledge, those who lack skills and talent, and those who are not Catholic or Christian. If you show them greater care and concern, it must be because their needs are greater and because it is only just to give more to those who have received less.”
These children need a school where they cannot fall through the cracks, where their teachers truly care about them and are willing to give them the extra time and attention that many of them need to excel. They need to be in a place where a teacher who notices that a student doesn’t have adequate winter clothing quietly donates a coat to the family. Most schools don’t see that kind of compassion as integral to their educational mission, but we do. That is how we educate the mind and the heart. That is how students recognize that, “Jesus lives here.”
Fr. Peter Pacini, C.S.C., is the pastor of St. Adalbert & St. Casimir Parishes in South Bend, Ind. He wrote this post for the Spes Unica Blog to celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Learn more about the commitment of Holy Cross to Catholic Education in the United States, including the Alliance for Catholic Education and our Holy Cross parochial schools.