At the end of every school year, businesses and residents of Milwaukee’s south side are treated to an interesting sight — more than 1,000 young people, from kindergartners to seniors in high school, flocking to the sidewalks, headed for the corner of Lincoln and Sixth Street.

Their destination for this day: the Basilica of St. Josaphat, where they will celebrate their annual all-school Mass. It’s the only church in the area large enough to hold the student body of what is believed to be the nation’s largest parish-based Catholic school.

But their destination, in the larger sense? The school’s president Jose Vasquez puts it this way:
“Whether you ask a 4-year-old kindergartner or a high school senior (at our school), what are their two personal goals? They will each tell you: it’s go to college, and go to Heaven.”

St. Anthony, which currently enrolls close to 2,000 students in grades pre-K through 12, celebrated an important milestone last month — 145 years since its founding in 1872 as a four-classroom school run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The occasion was marked by a special Mass celebrated by Bishop James Schuerman on Saturday, Nov. 18, at St. Anthony Parish on Ninth Street. Bishop Schuerman was actually the associate pastor at the parish from 1986-92.

The Mass and ensuing lunch and program was attended by a number of recognizable faces, including Milwaukee 12th District Alderman Jose Perez, Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Dan Kelly, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and Oscar Tovar, representing the office of the mayor. It was the perfect opportunity, said Vasquez, for the school to both recognize its rich past and herald its bright future with the announcement of new alumni organizations as well as ambitious plans for its sesquicentennial celebration in 2022.

“We really want to make that a joyful event,” he said.

A book documenting the school’s history will be commissioned in anticipation of the sesquicentennial, he added, “to celebrate all the different racial and ethnic groups who have been served by the school since its founding, from German and Polish and Irish and Italian and even Hmong and Vietnamese, and obviously now, the Hispanic presence.”

The school’s current enrollment numbers are due in large part to the 1998 expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. That year’s ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court to allow religious-based institutions to participate in the voucher program was the first such decision of a high court in the nation. In September 1998, St. Anthony School had 192 students. In 2003, that number was more than 500 — closing in on its all-time enrollment high of 600 students in the 1940s, the golden age of Catholic education. In 2008, enrollment swelled to more than 1,000.
Ninety-nine percent of the students are both Hispanic and participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Sixty-six percent will go on to pursue a post-secondary education, interpreted by St. Anthony as including technical college programs, baccalaureate degrees, apprenticeships and trades.

“We continue to see that number growing from year to year,” said Vasquez.

To accommodate its current student population, the school has grown to include five separate buildings scattered throughout the south side — two separate preschool/daycare and upper elementary buildings on South Ninth Street, one lower elementary campus on South Fifth Street, a middle school on South Fourth Street and the high school on South Second Street. In the early 2000s, the growth of the school was so rapid that overflow students had to be housed in trailers on playgrounds. New building acquisitions were begun in 2003 under then-President Terry Brown. The high school was formed in 2009 and the daycare and preschool followed in 2013, meaning that a student can toddle into St. Anthony at the age of 2 and stay with the school until they graduate their senior year.

Kurt Keidl, OSF, has taught theology at St. Anthony for the past five years. “Our presence on the south side of Milwaukee is vital for the future life of the Church in the city,” he said of the school’s mission. “The demographic trend seems to project that the Church of the south side will be predominantly Spanish-speaking in a couple decades. We have an obligation to reach out to our Latino youth and form them well in the faith; they are the future of the Church in our city.”

One way that St. Anthony maintains a strong, cohesive school culture throughout its five scattered campuses, said Vasquez, is by emphasizing that Catholic identity. Faith formation and academic achievement are the school’s “two pillars” which “we tend to integrate quite consciously.”
“Just about 90 percent of our students do go to weekly Mass at every one of our campuses. We let our parents know, as they are considering St. Anthony, who we are — and we start with the fact that we are a Catholic school — not a Christian school, a Catholic school.”
Keidl named four core values that the school hopes to instill in all graduates: the ability to be a person of faith, to be a lifelong learner, an effective communicator and a responsible member of the community. He credits the lay staff, students and families as well as the pastoral leadership of the school throughout the years with maintaining the Franciscan values the school was founded on.

“Throughout the changing years, our school has remained true to our mission through the efforts of our visionary and competent leadership to guide us in changing times.”