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Catholic Education

S.C. Catholics found new high school

NCR Staff
Greenville, S.C.

Forgive the Catholics in this small city if they feel a bit like the underdog.

This is territory dominated by Southern Baptists and by Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school where the official line, even today, is that the pope is the anti-Christ.

Catholics here are also a four-hour drive from diocesan headquarters in Charleston and think they are easy to ignore. So there is still an air of jubilation among some Catholics over what they managed to pull off four years ago with little more than determination, daring and a lot of hands-on help -- the founding of St. Joseph's High School.

"Most of us really believe this is the job God gave us to do," said Mary Cotter, a co-chair of the board of directors of the school. "Too many things worked out."

After four years of operation, the school has an enrollment of 60, expected to reach 90 next year, and will graduate seven, six of whom started as freshmen. This year, three students won gold medals in a music competition involving 38 other schools in the South Carolina Independent Schools Association. The math team also placed first in a state competition. Brett Meyers, a forward on the basketball team, won player of the year honors in the association league.

St. Joseph's appears to benefit from several intersecting influences, including previous attempts to start a school; regional growth that has brought in Catholics from other parts of the country; a weak public school system; and lay people taking up a task that previously would have been done by the diocese or a religious order.

The success in 1993 followed attempts by at least three other groups during the past 40 years, according to Cotter and Margaret Ann Moon, co-chairs of the school's board of trustees. And one of those attempts left a bitter memory.

According to Cotter and Moon, people organized in the late 1950s and early 1960s, collected a significant sum of money and purchased land with the intent of starting a diocesan high school in the region. But in the late 1980s, the land was sold by the diocese and the project was scuttled.

Those who had strongly supported the earlier efforts were reluctant this time. Nor was the diocese interested. Cotter, Moon and others met for several years, petitioning the diocese for support, doing exhaustive research on other Catholic high schools that had opened in recent years and finally, against all odds, taking the plunge.

Only one priest in the local deanery spoke out in favor of the idea. Organizers said that after meetings with diocesan officials, word came down in 1992 that the project was not feasible.

Time was running out. Interested people like Moon had children ready to start high school. Moon regularly puts her hunches to a divine test. So she prayed for guidance in early 1993 and told God that if, somehow, they were able get into a building by fall, they would go ahead.

The prayer was answered by a local Lutheran minister who initially donated the use of his church's Sunday school facilities for classrooms during the week. When that offer met with objections from his congregation, he offered an old house on church property. A heavy turnout of volunteer laborers refurbished the place, and it was ready to open by fall, 1993.

Everyone knew, however, that the gift house was a temporary fix. More space would be needed the following year. So the newly incorporated board began looking for a new location.

Before the year was out, the search zeroed in on a former United Way building. Just before she signed her name to a $400,000 mortgage, Moon stopped again to pray, this time asking for some kind of sign that she wasn't doing something foolish. When she got home, Cotter called and told her that the school had just received a donation of a St. Joseph statue, "just a little sign that we're going in the right direction," she said.

The deal was done and now the group is looking to the time when enrollment will swell over 130 and they'll need a new building, a development that could occur within a few years, said Paul E. Reinhardt, school administrator. By then, the story may not depend on sheer guts, faith and generous donors. Already there is a marked change in the attitude of pastors in the area, some of whom have begun donating money to the school.

And there is talk about an affiliation with the diocese. "We'd really like to have good relations with the diocese," said Cotter. Without that affiliation, St. Joseph's cannot be called a Catholic school, she said. The closest the diocese will allow is "in the Catholic tradition."

She would like to have the diocese approve the religion curriculum, for instance, but she would also like to do it in a way that does not anger donors who are still bitter from previous attempts to start a school. Some major donors have said if there were any affiliation with the diocese they would stop giving.

On a recent warm spring day in the Upstate region, it was enough to bask in the tales of what already had been done and to prepare for an in-school fund-raiser -- a Lenten Friday night fish fry.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997