By PAUL A. BARRA
SUMTER — On the feast of St. Francis Xavier, a local school named after the famed 16th century Jesuit received a grand present.
Bishop Robert J. Baker came to Sumter on Dec. 3 to officially welcome St. Francis Xavier High School into the Diocese of Charleston and to bless the walls of the building. The proclamation he signed made a big difference to the school.
“We could not, by canon law, call ourselves a Catholic school before,” said Frank Cottone, principal. “We’re thrilled to death and feel blessed.”
St. Francis Xavier High School will continue to be independent, supported by parents and benefactors, and will not become part of the diocesan school system. Even so, the institution had to meet the four criteria set down for Catholic schools by retired Bishop David B. Thompson. St. Francis Xavier is authentically Catholic, fiscally feasible, academically excellent and is supported by the community, according to Bishop Baker.
That support will now become even more obvious, said the pastor of nearby St. Anne Church.
“We’ve always encouraged them and supported them,” said Redemptorist Father Daniel Carboy, “but now we can do it physically and publicly. We hope St. Anne’s School will become a feeder school for St. Francis.”
St. Francis Xavier High School rose from the ashes of the Sumter Catholic High School, which closed in the mid-’90s. The new school opened its doors in 1996, according to school board member J Cabot Seth, and does not expect to grow bigger than 100 to 120 students. It presently has a student population of 47 and will graduate its first class of four-year seniors in the spring.
One of those is Ryan Brunke. He likes the amenities at the small school and does not miss big school things such as large classes.
“We’re able to interact with our teachers one-on-one, and our small size allows us to participate in any (activity) we want,” Brunke said.
St. Francis Xavier is accredited by the South Carolina Independent Schools Association (SCISA) and participates in league athletics. It is also certified by the National Honor Society, as well as by math and Spanish honor societies. The faculty of six offers a full range of academic subjects and extracurricular pursuits. The Spanish teacher at St. Francis is taking a class to Madrid this summer and was named the SCISA Teacher of the Year in 1999.
Donna Gordon admits that the tuition of about $3,200 annually does not support huge salaries, but claims that there’s more to teaching than money.
“The students here are more interested in strong academics and morals,” the award-winning educator said. “They get individualized attention and feel like part of family here. Besides, my work is part of giving back something to the church.”
Another reason the school operates in the black, according to Father Carboy, is the cooperation of the local municipality, which owns the building the school rents.
Councilman Robert Galliano, who represented the City of Sumter at the blessing ceremony, said the collaboration works both ways.
“You face a tremendous challenge and a wonderful opportunity,” Galliano told the students at St. Francis. “And we wish you well, because this school adds to the life of this city.”
Bishop Baker said that independent Catholic secondary schools, as opposed to diocesan ones, are trending upwards in the nation. Still, after the failure of Sumter Catholic, some parents were reluctant at first to trust the education of their children to the new school, said board chair Lt. Col. Robert M. Flury of nearby Shaw Air Force Base.
“This recognition will go a long way toward easing those fears. Families and the community will benefit from having a Catholic school system here in Sumter. We now expect enrollment to increase,” Flury said.
Bishop Baker told the students that they were “pioneers on a maiden voyage.”
As he walked around the school blessing classrooms, those pioneers sang “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” The closing line echoed the hope of the St. Francis Xavier High faithful: “Everlasting is thy reign.”