“Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes:”
Smells of hay, manure and freshly squeezed milk lingered in Jim Hammer’s thoughts as the St. Peter School, Beaver Dam second-grader knelt during morning Mass in 1932.
While not understanding the Latin version of the acclamation, “Take this, all of you, and eat it,” the young boy understood the significance of the words.
“Hoc est enim corpus meum. quod pro vobis tradetur.”
As the priest held the disc of bread and pronounced in Latin, “This is my body. Which will be given up for you,” Hammer, the youngest of 14 children, felt glad to be in church and finished with his morning milking chores on the family farm. Barely 4 years old when he learned to milk cows, Hammer was raised by devout Catholics who expected their son to learn the basics of reading, writing and math, as well his Catholic faith.
Hammer was also expected to obey his teachers – School Sisters of Notre Dame always dressed in full habit. Peering past the Communion rail at St. Peter Catholic Church to the priest, Hammer and his fellow second-grade students, numbering 50 alone in his classroom, tried to understand the priest’s words.
A staple of community
Catholic education had already been a staple of the Beaver Dam community for 70 years when Hammer was in second grade.
Mass is now in English. Communion rails and bells sounding during consecration of the bread and wine are largely relegated to memory, but one thing remains unchanged – the opportunity to obtain a Catholic education, said Hammer, 89, past president of the St. Peter School Board.
“Getting a Catholic education was very beneficial for me. I want to see it go forward for future generations. Students graduating from Catholic schools in Beaver Dam have always done well in the community,” Hammer said. Hammer and others from his generation are helping the community celebrate 150 years of Catholic education in Beaver Dam.
Celebrating past, future
The celebration looks to the past and future of Catholic education, and to changes since the first school opened its doors in 1862, said Barbara Haase, principal of St. Katharine Drexel School.
“Everything is coming fast and furious at students these days,” said Haase, who started as a teacher at St. Peter School, now St. Katharine Drexel, in 1975.
“When I started teaching here there were no computers. There was chalk and blackboards. Everything was textbooks and spiral notebooks,” Haase said. “Now, you’ve got textbooks that can be delivered on audible tapes or via CD or over the Internet. You have Smart Boards, which are very interactive so a student that might not be an avid reader or who doesn’t learn well by reading or lecturing can be very much an active participant in their learning.”
Technology brought changes
Margaret Schmitt, 75, recalled when St. Peter School obtained its first electric typewriter in 1955, the year she graduated from ninth grade.
“We had to spend a week learning how to use it,” Schmitt said. “I still don’t have a computer and I am involved in genealogy research. Sometimes I have to spend 15 minutes retyping a page just to change two words. It can be very frustrating. I wish I had been in the generation they started using computers.”
Schmitt said it’s important students continue to learn “the basics like reading, writing and arithmetic.”
“But if they also don’t know how to use computers, how are they going to get along in life? You have to go with the tide,” Schmitt said.
While technology rules classrooms today, nuns ruled the large classes of a half-century ago, Hammer said.
“We always had nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I never had a lay teacher,” Hammer said. “As far as the catechism, the nuns were very strict and by the book. We had to know everything word-for-word. If it wasn’t, it was wrong. ”
“We were there to go to school. We sat in our desks and didn’t speak unless spoken to by the teacher,” he said. “As far as writing, we learned the Palmer method.”
The Palmer method of cursive writing taught students to write using arm muscles rather than just their fingers.
“Just about every kid that went through school had good handwriting,” Hammer said.
St. Peter School was less than a decade old when Hammer began attending in 1931.
School takes pride in marching band
That same year the school formed its own band, believed to be the only grade school marching band in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The band has been a source of pride for Catholic education in Beaver Dam, Schmitt said.
In 1952, the band earned first place during a competition in Madison at the state convention of the Knights of Columbus.
Catholic education in Beaver Dam involves five schools, expanding and then declining student enrollments, the addition of kindergarten and elimination of ninth grade and, finally, the consolidation and creation of a unique school system resulting in today’s St. Katharine Drexel campus.
The first Catholic school in Beaver Dam was St. Mary School, opened on Sept. 10, 1862, or 21 years after the first settlers came to Beaver Dam.
The school opened in the former St. Peter Church after a new church building was constructed in 1854.
Second school built in 1885
Beaver Dam’s second Catholic school was built in 1885 by Fr. Q. Zielinski, pastor of St. Michael Church. The “Little Red School on the Hill” was built for “training the mind and heart of the young people to become faithful and fervent Catholics and loyal citizens,” according to local historical records quoting Zielinski.
A new school opened at St. Michael in 1951 and was staffed by lay teachers for the first 20 years. The school, later staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph from Stevens Point, closed in 1972 due to declining enrollments.
By that time a third Catholic school, St. Patrick School, was operating in Beaver Dam.
Staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis, St. Patrick began operation in 1950, 82 years after the parish originally bought land with the intention of building a school.
Declining enrollments led to consolidation
By the late 1970s, two Catholic schools proved to be too much for Beaver Dam as a nationwide trend toward declining enrollments forced the city’s three parishes to look at consolidation.
In 1980, Jim Hammer, then president of the St. Peter school board, joined pastors and lay representatives of all three churches in signing a constitution forming the Unified Catholic Parish Schools of Beaver Dam.
The unified system was among the first of its kind in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Hammer said.
“It was mostly for money that we consolidated,” Hammer said. “We could eliminate six teacher positions. We had lay teachers then and we had to pay them a living wage. When we had nuns we had it made. We paid them next to nothing.”
The option of paying a living wage is a social justice issue that no longer excludes members of religious orders, Haase said.
“For the sisters, teaching was a mission of their order. Years ago it was accepted that if you gave your life to a religious order you lived close to poverty. That is not accepted anywhere today,” she said.
Despite the cost savings, Hammer had a hard time signing the constitution forming the unified system.
“We used the saved money to help maintain St. Peter and St. Patrick schools, but not St. Michael. There were really hard feelings for a long time, although the consolidation didn’t do any harm to the students.”
By 1982 the three parishes came together and formed one parish named St. Katharine Drexel.
One school, three parishes
The schools followed suit with St. Patrick students now attending St. Peter and the school name being changed to St. Katharine Drexel School.
“Our whole history has been one of three separate campuses for three separate parishes down to two campuses supported by two parishes. Now we are down to one school supported by three parishes,” Haase said.
While technological changes have forced many changes in Catholic education, the mission of providing education in the Catholic faith has remained constant.
“The priest came in twice a week to give religion classes for a half-hour or 45 minutes,” Schmitt recalls from her school days in the 1950s. “The other three days the nuns would concentrate on religion and learning the catechism word-by-word.”
In the ‘30s, in addition to attending Mass daily at 8 a.m., religion was incorporated into the school day during special time periods, Hammer said.
Religion part of every class
Haase said religion remains part of every class, although students now attend Mass just once a week.
“We start off every day with a prayer, but students attend Mass only on Friday,“ Haase said.
Classes take turns planning and helping to execute the Mass, Haase said.
“It makes no difference whether we have sisters or lay teachers. We’ve always had a very dedicated faculty,” Haase said.
St. Katharine Drexel is now staffed totally by lay teachers, Haase said, and the school participates in the “Sustaining the Mission” program of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, a continuing faith formation program geared toward lay teachers.
“We need to know our own Catholic faith if we are to impart that knowledge to students and to share the faith,” she said.
Passing on the Catholic faith has been a hallmark of Catholic education in Beaver Dam, said School Sister of Notre Dame Joan Emily Kaul, who tutored religious students at St. Peter and taught in and served as secretary for the religious education program from 1987 to 2003.
“The new math came and the new math went. There was experimenting with phonics programs. But both the Catholic schools and public schools as well in Beaver Dam have always had a deep commitment to religious education,” said Sr. Joan Emily, a religious educator for 37 years. “When computers came along they were made very much a part of the curriculum, which was very far-sighted.”
Haase said there are currently 266 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
She said families have been forced by economic conditions to choose between “putting food on the table” and paying for a Catholic education.
“They will choose putting food on the table,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we are dying on the vine.”
School has wish list
In its sesquicentennial year, St. Katharine Drexel has a wish list of needs to keep its students and staff current with educational technology while trying to maintain an aging infrastructure.
Plans call for the school to go wireless, but that will require at least 30 iPads to equip a mobile tech lab ($21,000), wireless access points ($2,400), additional Smart Boards ($18,500) and 40 additional classroom computers ($20,000).
That’s on top of normal school costs such as an estimated $500,000 in heating and cooling system upgrades and $22,000 for an industrial quality dishwasher for the cafeteria.
Blessed with an endowment fund valued at $1.5 million, St. Peter hopes to build its future and enrollment and continue to offer tuition assistance to families needing financing help.
“Life is change,” Haase said of the need for technological and more traditional improvements. “If you don’t change, you die. If you die,, what good are you? But I believe the Holy Spirit is here. If we rely on the Holy Spirit to guide and challenge us we will continue to be vibrant, loving and caring, and to be an important part of the Beaver Dam community.”