Like the mystical city of Brigadoon appearing from nowhere through a Scottish Highlands’ fog, Shepherd of the Hills School rises unexpectedly and almost unseen from surrounding cornfields in the summer or snowdrifts in the winter near Eden, on the edge of Fond du Lac County’s “Holy Land.”
Situated in one of the most rural areas of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the school, with 123 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, recently underwent an expansion to accommodate a growing enrollment as parents and parishioners embrace bringing their children up Catholic in a country setting, said principal Jeanne Bitkers.
“Just last week we enrolled four new students,” Bitkers said. ”A lot of parents are looking for school to be an extension of their home. They have strong Catholic values and have chosen to live in a more rural environment.”
Located about six miles east of Eden, the school, opened in 2005 adjacent to Shepherd of the Hills Church, was built midway between the two schools it replaced – Our Lady of Angels in Armstrong and St. Mary in Eden.
“There are certainly advantages to a school that is smaller. The parish in a rural environment becomes more of an activity center for families. The school then becomes an extension of the Catholic values that are provided in a home environment,” Bitkers said.
The school draws students from as far away as the Fond du Lac, Plymouth, Eden, Armstrong and Cascade areas.
Enrollments filled the school to bursting in less than a decade, prompting a $635,000 expansion project.
“We are kind of a gem in the countryside. Not a lot of people even know we are here,” said Rose Baker, who has two children attending the school and served on the school’s building committee.
Baker said the expansion project was necessary to alleviate several space crunches not only in the school where the cafeteria doubled as a room for art class and pre-kindergarten classes, and several grade levels shared rooms, but in the church, which lacked adequate meeting and storage space.
“Most of the parents said we needed this expansion right now so we could get out of our space crunch,” Baker said.
Bitkers said the parish council looked at the situation “and realized the parish and school were outgrowing the facilities, even though they were relatively new.”
“The project was not only to accommodate the school, but to accommodate religious education classes, to have additional spaces and meeting space for the parish,” Bitkers said.
The result was a 3,000-square-foot plus, multi-functional project designed to benefit the church and school by adding two classrooms, a locker room for students and athletes, laptops, iPads for all students and other technology equipment for school and additional storage space for the parish.
The project began in the summer of 2013 and was finished by October.
“Creating the gym changing area was huge, just from a sanitary standpoint,” said Nicole Baus, who has two children, one who participates in fifth grade sports, attending Shepherd of the Hills. “Away teams playing sports here always had to change their clothes in the bathroom stalls.”
The addition of the classrooms allowed more separation of lower and upper grades, Baus said.
“I do like the separation of the grade levels,” she said. “The fifth graders were down in a section of the school with the kindergarten through fourth grade. Now the fifth graders have their own area, which is nice because of the noise of the younger kids and their different interests. We are completely comparable to bigger schools.”
The project also allowed the expansion of the cafeteria and early childhood spaces.
“We also expanded our technology lab because technology needs are changing,” Bitkers said.
Baus said the expansion’s funds “were spent on exactly the things they should have been spent on.”
Baker, who chaired the fund raising committee for the project, noted the $635,000 project costs were raised almost entirely by donations from parents and parishioners.
“We have very generous parishioners. We did not have to take a loan out at all,” Baker said. “They are always willing to do all they can to make things grow.”
Fr. Chuck Wrobel, pastor at Shepherd of the Hills, said “parishioners love the school and will do anything they can to help it thrive as seen by the generosity of the donations.”
Bitkers said the donations show a commitment to the Catholic faith, Catholic education and faith formation by the Shepherd of the Hills community.
“Families are very much interested in providing the very best faith formation they can,” she said.
Bitkers said the generosity is not limited to parents of students, but to grandparents and older parishioners without children in school.
“Most of the older adults have been formed in a Catholic school setting and want to pass on that legacy to their children and grandchildren,” she said.
“At this point we are all working hard to get the message out about the importance of a Catholic education and spread the message of the Gospel to the children,” Bitkers said. “We are all focused on evangelization, the whole church is as we should be from the pope to our archbishop. One of the best forms of evangelization is to teach our children, who can grow up and love and live our faith as Catholic adults.”