Fall and pasta go hand in hand at St. Joan Antida High School. This Sunday, Nov. 1, marks the 60th annual “Spaghetti with the Sisters” dinner, hosted by the Sisters of Charity, at the all-girls Catholic high school. With help from the Pompeii Men’s Club, the sisters will serve about 250 spaghetti and meatball dinners in the school cafeteria, and prepare another 150 for carryout.

Members of the Pompeii Men’s Club and their spouses make meatballs at St. Joan Antida High School, Oct. 30, 2014, in preparation for last year’s spaghetti dinner. The club will prepare meatballs later this week to serve at the school’s 60th annual “Spaghetti with the Sisters” dinner on Sunday, Nov. 1. (Catholic Herald file photo by Allen Fredrickson)In all, more than 700 pounds of meatballs – a big draw in the SJA community and neighborhood – will be served
“The meatballs are the most phenomenal meatballs I have ever tasted,” said head of school, Paul Gessner, in an interview with the Catholic Herald, of the delicacy made with a “closely guarded secret recipe.”  

The fundraiser is a homecoming of sorts for alumnae, current students and families, board members and donors. Gessner said he loves this event because it is casual and he is able to spend time getting to know people. He estimates it will raise $10,000 for the school.

In 1955, one year after the school opened, Sr. Lucy and the Sisters of Charity started the event, making the meatballs and honoring one of their core values — hospitality. The neighborhood was predominantly Italian and the local parish was St. Rita Cascia, also served by the Sisters of Charity. St. Rita’s sister parish was Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church, located in the Third Ward, which was torn down in 1967 to make room for freeway expansion.

But members of the Pompeii Men’s Club, along with their wives, continue making meatballs for the fundraiser, illustrating a commitment to their belief that “service to humanity is the best work of life.”

Serving the poor

As it marks six decades of raising funds by serving spaghetti, the school is also celebrating its rich history as it begins another chapter in providing quality education to Milwaukee’s poorest girls.

One of the vows taken by the Sisters of Charity is service to the poor. At St. Joan Antida, more than 98 percent of the

If you go

Spaghetti with the Sisters will be held Sunday, Nov. 1, noon to 4 p.m. at the school, 1341 N. Cass St., Milwaukee. Take-outs are available. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time: (414) 274-4728 or online: myab.co/events/4rA

student body falls at or below the poverty line, explained Gessner. The school’s population is about 50 percent Hispanic and 50 percent African American.

Freshman students come to St. Joan Antida from elementary schools believing their choices in life are limited. The teachers and administrators help the girls during their freshman year to understand they are capable of achieving success in academics and furthering their education.  

“I love the diversity here at SJA,” said Sr. Ann Marie Baemmert, provincial leader of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida. “Watching these young women find their gifts, talents and voice is such a joy. In a single sex environment, they can move into roles of leadership and responsibility.”

According to Sr. Elizabeth Weber, director of mission and ministry at SJA, the girls change during their time at the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida enjoy a visit from St. Joan Antida High School head of school Paul Gessner on Oct. 26 as they make snowmen that will be sold at the school’s fundraiser, “Spaghetti with the Sisters,” this Sunday. Pictured are Srs. Marie Grohall, left to right, Elizabeth Weber, Mary Ann Cera and Marie Louise Balistrieri. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)school.

“We see these young girls become accepting and compassionate. They begin to see the world as bigger than themselves. They learn that they have a significant part to play in the world,” she said.

Gessner has served as head of school at SJA since 2012, after spending 15 years in teaching and administration at Rufus King. His experience at Rufus King gave him the tools he needs to lead SJA, including budgeting, staffing, curriculum and student discipline, he said.

He described his decision to move to SJA as answering a call.

“I believe that God will place me where he wants me to be,” he said.

Challenging curriculum

In August 2015, SJA became the first all-girls high school in Wisconsin to offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. When critics said SJA’s students from poor neighborhoods would be unable to achieve such a high standard, Gessner and the board became even more resolved to make it happen and determined to show it will work.

In addition to the IB program, SJA launched a Girls in Engineering program in partnership with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in 2010. All freshmen are required to take Introduction to Engineering. After that, students are encouraged to take up to four more engineering classes as part of the Project Lead the Way curriculum.  

During senior year, students have an opportunity to take Engineering Design and Development, a capstone class featuring the design, development and marketing of a product with supervision provided by engineers and designers from Eaton Corporation and Johnson Controls. SJA graduates who have succeeded in the engineering classes can go to MSOE with a reduced tuition of $7,900 per year, a savings of more than $25,000 annually.

More than academic development  

Just offering challenging academic coursework is not enough to get these at-risk girls through high school and headed toward a bright future, said Gessner. Challenges, including homelessness and lack of funds for school supplies and clothing, are common.

To address those needs, SJA offers an after school program through Boys and Girls Clubs which includes a power hour of homework help, as well as social activities and programs in financial literacy and civic responsibility. Pearls for Teen Girls meets with freshmen and sophomores to help the girls become leaders and to avoid poor life choices.

College Possible works with juniors and seniors who have a 2.0 GPA or higher, targeting first generation college students in helping them with ACT preparation and college applications.

Erika Johnson is perhaps the best recent example of success at SJA. Currently in her junior year at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, Johnson credits her years at SJA for preparing her for the future. She grew up disadvantaged, living for four months in a Milwaukee homeless shelter during eighth grade.

While at SJA, she participated in robotics and studied DNA technology at MSOE. She also traveled to Assisi, Italy.

Johnson found a mentor in Phyllis Piano, an SJA alumna, as well as her grandmother, Lucy Johnson, who helped keep her on track.

St. Joan Antida’s wrap around approach to education, including academically challenging coursework and social services, are the key to helping girls from low-income families have a chance to live a life above the poverty line, according to Gessner.

It’s one they plan to continue well into the future, thanks, in part, to the money they will raise from this Sunday’s dinner.