Last in a series

I recently read some information in The Fortieth Vermont School Report made by the Superintendent of Education to the General Assembly – October 1908 – St. Albans, VT. One area of this report from 1908 caught my attention – a tabulation of 27 Catholic schools in Vermont (at the time), their location, grades taught, number of teachers as well as students in each listed school. A few footnotes included which schools only employed lay teachers and which schools offered a commercial or academy course. Among the schools listed, St. Michael’s College was identified as a college and likely included because it was a Catholic institution for learning. Therefore, I focused attention to other 26 grade-level schools. As I continued to survey this table, I noted the larger Catholic schools in St. Albans, Burlington, Winooski, Montpelier, Newport, Bennington, and Brattleboro. I chose to highlight two Catholic schools on this list and three other Catholic schools not on the list. While these schools were widely known in their own communities, their stories quietly receded to the background of Diocesan history once the schools closed. What Catholic populations were served? How were these schools staffed? How were the schools impacted over time?

St. Stanislaus Kostka School, West Rutland

The first Polish settlement in the area was recorded in 1890, as Polish workers arrived in Vermont to work in the marble quarries alongside Irish immigrants in Rutland and West Rutland. The Polish community grew from 12 quarrymen in 1890 to about 400 people by 1902. Father Valentine Michulka, a Polish-speaking priest, was sent by Bishop Michaud to West Rutland in 1904 to serve this community. Father Michulka immediately began raising funds and material donations for the purpose of building a church. By the end of 1906, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church was completed and in January 1907, St. Stanislaus Kostka School began operating in the church’s basement.

The first class included 30 students taught in Polish by a seminarian, Maximilian Gannas, who arrived in West Rutland in 1905 and offered his services to Father Michulka. Classes were taught in that church basement for the next 18 years and received instruction exclusively in Polish by lay teachers.

By 1922, so many students were enrolled and the school outgrew the space in the church basement. A vacant, 19th century single-family home (which would later become a convent) was purchased down the road from the church to relieve crowding and 60 to 70 first-graders were moved to that space. The old Episcopal church building was used to accommodate another grade. By 1924, there were over 400 students enrolled in only six grades – the 7th and 8th grade students attended the public school.

By then, the Felician Sisters of St. Francis, a religious order of women originating in Poland, had joined the lay teachers on the school’s faculty. The new St. Stanislaus Kostka School was opened in September 1925. The 300 registered Polish families were enthusiastically generous, each pledging $100 toward this endeavor. Parishioners were not charged tuition for the education of their children – they were only asked to pay for their own children’s books. Children from outside the parish were charged $10 per year to attend the school.

Due to dwindling enrollment and decreased numbers of Felician Sisters on staff, the school closed in 1979. The sisters’ presence in the community had a great influence on the parishioners both through their dedication to their vocation to religious live and as educators.

It was evident that providing a Catholic education to Vermont’s children was a priority since the early days of the creation of the Diocese of Burlington, as more and more churches and parishes were established throughout the state. Opening all these schools was likely a financially daunting task in the beginning because doing so required enormous sacrifices from the parishioners and the religious sisters recruited to operate the schools. Parishioners all over the state consisted of immigrant populations who labored tirelessly to earn a living and the religious sisters received very little salary for their work. Parish priests were not rich in worldly goods but were endowed with the strength of their faith, dedication to their vocation, and the Catholic faithful in Vermont.

They adopted Bishop Louis de Goësbriand’s motto, God will provide, in their quest to educate children. Religious sisters were invited to take part in establishing and operating these schools for many years in this diocese and are credited with fostering many vocations to the priesthood and religious life – a visible sign of God’s blessing on parishes. Although many schools closed long ago for financial or other reasons, the most important subject taught on the purpose of life – to know, love, and serve God – will not be forgotten.

Kathleen Messier is the assistant archivist for the Diocese of Burlington. For more information, email Archives@vermontcatholic.org.

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