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 | By Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

Blessed with 150 years of Catholic education

Legacy of St. James and All Saints continues 

When a group of Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati stepped off the train in Bay City, the story goes, they were overwhelmed with the smell of freshly-cut lumber and hot resin. It was Aug. 25, 1873, and the religious order was charged with conducting classes at the new St. James School.

Since then, that plot of land at Jackson and 14th Streets in Bay City has seen many changes— shifting boundaries for Bay County, the formation of the Diocese of Saginaw in 1938, the turn of two centuries, mergers and name changes, chalkboards and iPads. Yet one thing has remained constant:  this is a home to Catholic education.

Sister Julie Gatza and Sister Pat Wlock, two Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati who served at St. James School, shared the school’s history with Great Lakes Bay Catholic in honor of 150 years of Catholic education. Sister Julie taught first grade before serving as the elementary school principal, and Sister Pat taught English and language arts to multiple grades.

Throughout the school’s history, they described how an untold number of faithful gave of their time, talent and treasure to build up and support Christ-centered education.

An early benefactor, whose name has been lost to history, was instrumental in the school’s formation under Father Henry Schutjes, who became pastor in 1868, and his successor Father Thomas Rafter.

“[The man said,] ‘I will help with the school if you get the Sisters of Charity to come. … I put my daughter in their academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they are marvelous teachers,’” Sister Julie recounted.

The bishops of Detroit and Cincinnati agreed the Sisters of Charity could teach in Bay City, and the benefactor purchased the train tickets to bring them north. The four sisters disembarked near Columbus Avenue.

These were the first of more than 400 sisters who served St. James School over the years. Sister Julie and Sister Pat, along with the late Sister Maureen Donovan (who passed away in 2023) were the last three Sisters of Charity who taught at the school.

From the beginning, St. James School stood out as unique. It was, at the time, the only English-language Catholic school in Bay City, and it taught boys and girls together for all 12 grades (kindergarten was uncommon at the time).

Being co-educational ruffled some feathers, especially because the high school boys were taught by women religious. At the direction of Bishop Caspar Borgess of Detroit, Father Rafter and the Brothers of the Holy Cross also taught at the school. Over the years, teachersincluded religious sisters from the Dominican, Felician and Mercy orders.

St. James holds that it was the oldest Catholic co-educational parochial four-year high school in the United States, and that claim has never been disputed, according to an article in The Catholic Weekly dated May 25, 1952.

“That’s one of the gifts that they gave the world, here in Bay City,” Sister Julie remarked.

St. James was also the “first parish place of learning in Michigan offering a complete high school course,” according to a parish history published for its centennial.

Despite being co-ed, the first 14 graduating classes were all girls, as a financial crisis dubbed the Panic of 1873 forced many boys to drop out. The first graduation 150 years ago was an occasion of pomp and circumstance, with Bishop Caspar Henry Borgess of Detroit presiding. The two graduates read essays and played piano selections.

“The Bishop crowned each girl with a wreath of orange blossoms and presented her with a highly ornamented testimonial … [with] all the attributes which measure up to near perfection in a pupil’s life. Placed around the neck of each girl graduate was a white ribbon from which hung a gold cross,” quotes a 1993 history of the school. “Instead of the scholarly cap and gown of today, the first graduates appeared in bride-like, lace-trimmed be-ribboned dresses and were usually attended by flower girls.”

Margaret Doman and Georgiana Hebert were the first graduates in 1874, and their sisters Anna Doman and Cornelia Hebert comprised the next class.

Three of the four became Sisters of Charity. In fact, 74 women religious vocations came from St. James School through 1983, the year the data was last compiled.

As the country emerged from the Great Depression, the parish, school, convent and rectory saw extensive repairs and improvements and the generosity of the parish community continued. One donor, Peter Paveglio, is recorded, but Sister Pat wonders how many others like him gave of their time, talent and treasure.

“He made a donation … for the outdoor shrine in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary … the shrine is still there, between the rectory and the auditorium,” said Sister Pat Wlock, adding that the statue is not the original.

Classes and athletic teams would visit (and continue to visit) to pray at the shrine.

Sister Julie recalled a graduate, Martha Roulund, who received support from the Sisters of Charity to attend college. She enjoyed professional and financial success, yet never forgot her roots.

“She paid it back 10 times over,” Sister Julie commented. After retiring, Martha returned to Bay City and donated technology to the school and created an endowment fund, among other support.

“That's part of our history! It's … people like this that may or may never be written about,” Sister Pat said, gesturing at a Catholic Weekly article about the history of the parish and the school, “who contributed in some way.”

Both sisters recalled school families banding together to help others in need and volunteering at the school. Much assistance was coordinated by the late Sister Maureen Donovan, who served as principal for many years.

Sister Julie and Sister Pat are both St. James alumni, graduating in 1957. Neither of them told the other that they were discerning religious life, so it was a surprise when they discovered they both entered the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati!

They returned to teach at St. James:  Sister Julie teaching first grade and Sister Pat as an English and language arts instructor. They fondly remembered their days of teaching small groups of children at a time.

Sister Pat noted that the school offered an excellent education to all.

In fact, St. James School has always admitted Catholics and non-Catholics alike, regardless of race or ethnicity. “Opening all instruction to adults when requested was another proof of the school’s policy of serving all,” reads a 1993 history of the school.

“[The school] has contributed to Bay City the gift of a thorough education, Catholic education,” said Sister Julie.

That quality religious education has continued through the present.

“We have high standards for our students in the classroom, on the fields and in their desire to serve others,” said Lisa Rhodus, principal of All Saints Catholic Elementary School. “Our students take pride in being All Saint Cougars, and they demonstrate that daily. Our students are very active in the school, working on their academics, extracurricular activities and in their volunteer hours. … It is a true privilege to work at All Saints due to the dedication of the staff, families and students.”

Partnership with families is crucial.

“The family plays an important role in the education we have in our school. We would never be able to do what we do without strong family support,” Sister Pat said.

Lisa agrees.

“We are grateful for the wonderful support of our school community, as well as the support from our parishes,” she said. “All Saints is so much more than a school— it is a community, where our children learn, thrive and know they are loved.”

The All Saints Catholic community celebrated 150 years of Catholic education during Catholic Schools Week, as Bishop Robert Gruss celebrated Mass. Father José María Cabrera, pastor of All Saints Parish, and Father Rick Filary, currently serving as sacramental minister at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Midland, concelebrated. Current students, families, staff and alumni packed All Saints Parish, St. James Church, for the Mass.

“As I reflect on the past 150 years of Catholic education, ‘blessed’ is the word that comes to mind. A Catholic education is a true blessing,” Lisa said. “Catholic schools educate the whole child both academically and spiritually. Students who attend Catholic Schools have an education centered in Christ, where his values are taught, [including] love, kindness, responsibility, generosity, forgiveness, and many more that help our students become the people God created them to be.”