MILWAUKEE — In 1923, St. Catherine Parish was like most burgeoning parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. To educate its children, it opened a school – a school that would serve hundreds of Catholic students over the next nine decades.

Daija Simmons, now an eighth grader at St. Catherine School, reads from Scripture during a Catholic Schools Week Mass at St. Catherine Parish, Feb. 2. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)

Daija Simmons, now an eighth grader at St. Catherine School, reads from Scripture during a Catholic Schools Week Mass at St. Catherine Parish, Feb. 2. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)

While the economic and religious status of people in the parish’s neighborhood has changed, the area’s children are receiving what St. Catherine School has always provided – a Catholic education.

St. Catherine School never lost its Catholic identity, but Fr. Larry Chapman, pastor of St. Catherine Parish since June 2014, saw the need to reintroduce parishioners to the school.

“Nothing had been said (at Sunday Masses) about the school for a long, long time,” he explained. “The realization that none of the parishioners have their students here had separated the parish from the school a whole lot.”

Fr. Chapman said there wasn’t animosity from parish toward the school, but rather a “separation over time that created a bigger gulf than people were aware of.”

To help eliminate that gulf, the priest tapped members of the parish’s school advisory board in 2015, which he organized after becoming pastor, to speak about the school at each of the Sunday Masses.

Describing the situation as “distance rather than a riff,” Fr. Chapman said it developed suddenly as fewer parishioners had children in the school.[su_pullquote align=”right”]See related stories:

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“Then it became more difficult to reach across this,” he said. “How are parishioners going to reach the parents and the students? We were struggling with how that is going to happen.”

Michael Turner, the St. Catholic School principal Fr. Chapman hired for the 2015-2016 school year, made fortification of the parish-school connection a priority.

“That bridge was important to me,” he said. “I got a lot of comments about how it wasn’t so much we (parish) didn’t care, we didn’t know.”

Turner said there was a sense the parish was against the school.

“In reality, it was just two groups of folks that maybe weren’t communicating and staying connected,” he said.

One way for students to meet parishioners and vice versa was at Mass. Fr. Chapman taught school children about the Mass, i.e., prayers, actions. At the Sunday Masses he invited parishioners to worship with the children during a Catholic Schools Week Mass in January and on Ash Wednesday.

“‘Recognize these students are, by and large, not Catholic; maybe come and sit with them, mix with them, do the prayers along with them,’” he recalled telling parishioners. “Everything we heard about that was overwhelmingly positive.”

Thirty parishioners were at the Mass and, according to Fr. Chapman, they noted the children’s good behavior, their respect for the Mass and the questions they asked.

“One of our little girls went up to parishioners who have been here for 30 years, extended her hand, and said, ‘Welcome to our church!” the priest said with a laugh.

While the school’s enrollment is heavily non-Catholic – Turner estimates it could be 95 percent – its identity as a Catholic school is front and center so parents know what kind of education they are choosing for their children.

“It says Catholic school on the door. Everybody’s coming into this arrangement eyes wide open,” he said. “It’s not as if we’re springing it (Catholicism) on them out of left field.… It’s in our mission statement. It frames everything we do.”

He noted that universal themes such as faith and forgiveness resonate with the community St. Catherine School is serving.

“Our students, to borrow a phrase from another principal, are fairly well-churched; they just don’t go to this church,” he said, adding that introducing them to the Communion process and other parts of Catholicism “expand their understanding of Christianity and religion in the world around them.”

Fr. Chapman noted that when the school held its family night last spring, he said, “‘We like to start off with a moment of grace, a moment of prayer.’ It got quiet. There was a sense of the sacred. I led the prayer and said, ‘Amen.’ I got this big ‘Amen’ back. They’re aware of the religious foundation and environment (in our school).”