It took three starts, but St. Anthony School in Florence turned 50

FLORENCE — An old adage says “the third time’s the charm.” St. Anthony School is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but its history began 113 years ago with a false start followed by a school closure.

First came the dream that never became reality. St. Anthony began as a mission out of Charleston in the 1870s. Masses were celebrated in a private home by a series of visiting priests until a chapel was constructed in 1884.

According to archives in the Diocese of Charleston, in April of 1893 Father J.E. Chapius took up residence in Florence and immediately tried to start a school. On April 26 he wrote to Bishop H.P. Northrop, “I never saw or found a more propitious field for a sisters’ school and which would offer so many inducements and causes for success; and I do not think there is another place where such school is more needed.”

Father Chapius received word that the Ursuline Sisters in Columbia might be able to staff his proposed school. He assembled his financial data and target demographics before following up with a second letter to the bishop in late June of 1893 and a subsequent planned meeting with the Ursuline mother superior. He wrote once more to the bishop on July 10, and everything else is lost to history. The school never opened.

Next came the school that closed. Father Charles D. Wood, who was ordained in 1898, began serving St. Anthony from Charleston in 1899. He established St. Anthony Mission House in 1900 and was assigned as pastor in 1901.

The mission house included a school and convent for the Mission Sisters of South Carolina, an offshoot of the Franciscan Sisters of Quebec. The school’s stated goal was “to reach children and to educate them for the reception of the sacraments.”

Four professed sisters, three novitiates, and two postulants taught 25 Catholic children, a combination of boarding students, day students and kindergartners. Board, tuition, and books were all free.

The school opened to non-Catholic students in 1905. Attendance peaked at 47 students in 1906 but dropped to 34 in 1908. No further record of the sisters exists after 1908, and the last record of the school in 1909 shows that it had 16 students.

The parish moved to a new brick church on the corner of Irby and West Palmetto streets in 1917.

A successful school finally began in 1956, when 81 children entered a new, traditional school building with three classrooms. It was staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and a lay kindergarten teacher. The building was expanded in 1960, another sister joined the faculty in 1961, and three additional lay teachers were hired in 1966.

In 1970, the parish church was destroyed in a fire. The decision was made to relocate the entire parish campus from downtown Florence to Hoffmeyer Road to provide room for growth.

The school continued to operate downtown until the new building was completed in time for the 1973 academic year. Educational concepts were changing, and the new building was state of the art for its time, with one large open classroom.

In an interview with The Catholic Miscellany, Principal Phyllis Brandis explained that the open classroom allowed children to learn at their own speed. For example, a fourth-grader who was advanced in math could sit with the fifth-graders for math class while remaining at fourth-grade level for everything else. She stressed that the students also learned good concentration skills.

Educational ideas have continued to evolve, and the open room is now partitioned into self-contained classrooms, with movable bookcases functioning as partial walls. An addition, built about 10 years ago, added four self-contained classrooms for children in grades five through eight, a science lab and a computer lab. Students in the upper grades move from room to room within the addition, but everybody shares the computer lab.

School curricula have also changed over the years. “Children have to learn so much more than we did,” Brandis said.

Math and science classes that were previously taught in high school are now taught at the middle-school level. The school’s curriculum is built on the basics of math and phonics, and Brandis is proud that “our children come out on top all the time.”

A number of students have parents who attended St. Anthony.

The 50th anniversary festivities began with a special school Mass honoring school parents on Feb. 3, the end of Catholic Schools Week. A new logo and sign were unveiled for students, families and faculty members at a party after the Mass.

“We’ve had a great 50 years, and we’re looking forward to the next 50,” Teri Kooper, a parent and the school’s community coordinator, said of St. Anthony School.

Other events planned to celebrate 50 years include a family day, a fall dinner, and an annual auction fund-raiser.