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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
St. Peter’s Catholic School of Olney is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and while much has changed over the past six decades, the desire to provide a strong faith-filled education remains the same.
“Our mission has not changed – to work in partnership with parents to nurture their children in the love of God, the love of neighbor and sound moral values; and to help every child develop to as a great an extent as possible his or her spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and physical potential,” Principal Mary Elizabeth Whelan said.
She said that mission was relevant when the school opened in 1957 and the parish is confident the school will continue to serve the students of St. Peter’s for many years.
She recognizes that Catholic education has evolved over time, with the most notable change being the loss of the religious teaching orders who faithfully served Catholic students through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
“Despite the loss of the nuns in the schools, almost any Catholic elementary school, including St. Peter’s, retains many of the traditional elements of Catholic education that would feel familiar to visitors today — a strong current of faith that infuses the daily routine of all students and faculty, happy and well-disciplined students, high expectations for effort and achievement for all students, and the sense of dedication to mission by the faculty and staff,” Whelan said.
She said St. Peter’s has “successfully fused these traditional elements of Catholic education with up-to-date instructional methods,” including focus on the arts and science, technology, engineering and math to prepare students “for success in life.”
She said the number of students who attend Catholic schools has declined in the past 10 years, due in part to the increase in the cost of Catholic education.
Whelan said the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Kalita, and the parish community “continue to generously support the school so as to keep tuition expenses and annual increases as affordable as possible.”
Six decades of St. Peter’s School
The school opened on Sept. 5, 1957, with 160 pupils. The construction project also included the parish hall, which was used as a church until the Worship Center was built in 1988.
The students were originally taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pa.,
The students came from a wide geographic area and were permitted to ride county school buses. Even the nuns, who were living in Williamsburg Village, rode the school bus.
The first graduation was held in 1958, with six students.
In the late 1970’s, due to declining religious vocations, the Sisters of St. Joseph no longer had sufficient members to staff all its schools. In June 1983, the last four remaining sisters left St. Peters after 26 years.
In 1974, two more classrooms, an enlarged library and office space were added.
In 1998, another addition to the school nearly doubled classroom space. The expansion included a science laboratory, seven new classrooms and a new media center.
In 2012, St. Peter’s School was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
The current enrollment is 393 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The staff includes three teachers who are alumni of St. Peter’s.
The ‘family’ connection
Many of those who attended St. Peter’s remain attached to the school, including multiple generations of some families.
Catherine Yates Mooney was in St. Peter’s first first-grade class. Her children attended the school and now she is involved as a grandparent, with grandchildren in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
“When I went to school, it was a different era here in Olney,” she said. “It was very country. I grew up on Old Baltimore Road and walked through cow fields to get to school — what is now Hallowell.”
She said she is grateful that her own children and now her grandchildren attended the same school she attended.
“It makes my heart so happy,” Yates said. “Catholic education is important to us, and we were blessed to send our children, and now have our grandchildren, there.”
As for changes over the years, the absence of nuns is the most obvious to her. Technology has obviously changed, as there were no computers in her day, and she notes the significant changes in the science and math curriculums, and the additional activities such as the drama program.
“Some things are the same, though – the kids are still playing in the parking lot, the good education is there, and the Catholic spirit is there,” she said.
Caley Gallagher, now a fifth-grade teacher, graduated from St. Peter’s in 2007. Three of her siblings attended the school and her parents were active volunteers.
She has fond recollections of participating in drama productions, the Spiritual Life Committee, the family heritage project and dressing up as a saint.
“The experience of being part of a Catholic school community for so many years was something very special that is hard for students in public schools to understand,” she said. “It’s like being part of a big family.”
When Gallagher graduated from college she talked with Beth Bieberich, a family friend and teacher at St. Peter’s, who encouraged her to apply to teach at St. Peter’s.
“It wasn’t until I actually came in for the interview that the idea of teaching at St. Peter’s really crystalized in my mind as a desire to come home and give back to my community,” Gallagher said.
She said the support and mentorship she has received at St. Peter’s gives her a greater appreciation for her vocation as a Catholic school teacher.
Marking a milestone
St. Peter’s School marked the start of its 60th year with a family Mass and picnic on the first day of school.
On Nov. 4, the school’s annual gala will take place, with a “Homecoming” theme.
Other anniversary events will include a movie night, special “tag” (out of uniform) days held every 60 days, and an alumni event, which is still in the planning stages, to be held in the spring.
Special spirit wear and gift items are available to school families and alumni, featuring items made from the familiar blue plaid uniform fabric. Items may be purchased from the school’s website at www.stpetersschoololney.org.
“Every event is extra special this year and we really do want our alumni to come back,” said Mary Randles, the school’s development director.
Historical information obtained from “The Parish of Saint Peter — The History of a Roman Catholic Congregation,” published by St. Peter’s in 1998.
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