St. Mary Help of Christians focuses on religion

AIKEN — Peggy Wertz, principal of St. Mary Help of Christians, provided the following information on the school.

History: St. Mary Help of Christians School dates back to 1900, when it was established under the name St. Angela Academy by Ursuline nuns as a boarding school for wealthy young ladies. In 1906, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy from Charleston assumed the school’s operation. In 1950, St. Mary Help of Christians, also under the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, became the parochial grammar school and St. Angela Academy the high school. The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy ran St. Mary’s until 1997.

Principal: Marguerite (Peggy) Wertz.

Number of students: 280 with a realistic capacity of 320.

Faculty: The school has 25 full-time and five part-time teachers.

Grades: K-4 through eighth-grade.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

After-school program: Before-school care begins at 7 a.m. The after-school program runs until 6 p.m. and offers snacks, study hall, tutoring and ample time outside.

School meals: Lunches are coordinated by the Parent Teacher Organization and offer menus from local vendors. Ice cream is available on Fridays.

School colors: Blue and white.

Mascot: The Saints.

Sports: St. Mary’s offers soccer, basketball, volleyball for girls, cross country, track and field, golf, tennis and cheerleading starting in sixth-grade.

Let us brag: St. Mary Help of Christians could not operate as successfully if it were not for the support of the parents, who help the teachers and plan special activities for the students, such as the 20th annual Chocolate Festival, which will be held Oct. 4.

Foreign language: French and Spanish are taught to all grades.

Advanced classes: Our curriculum is challenging at all levels, especially fifth-grade and up. Eligible students are placed in advanced classes in mathematics and literature. Qualifying students can earn high school credits in English, algebra, and Spanish or French. Teachers from all three area high schools remark on the quality preparation of St. Mary’s students.

Academic teams: Our MathCounts team took first place in Aiken County in 2007 and placed 14th in the state competition at Clemson University. Also, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders may participate on the LEGO team, which includes building a robot.
Facilities: Our campus consists of six buildings built between 1939 and 2000. The school is located in historic downtown Aiken and is one block from St. Mary Help of Christians Church.

Biggest change over the years: Students were once taught mostly by religious. The last sister here was Sister Rosemary Boyd, OLM, who retired as principal in 1997.

What sets us apart: St. Mary’s students often remain together for their entire elementary and middle school experience. Families of those students create bonds which last for a lifetime. Family involvement in activities evolves into family traditions.

Community projects: In addition to supporting the ministries at St. Mary’s church with food, collections and volunteer time, students work with local agencies and national organizations. Recent projects include Children’s Place, the Aiken Pregnancy Care program, Alzheimer’s Association and the SPCA. Eighth-graders volunteer at the Special Olympics each May and provide craft activities for the participants.

Our parish: The school is a ministry of St. Mary Help of Christians Church. Father James L. LeBlanc, pastor, Father Jeffrey Kirby, parochial vicar, and the parishioners generously support the school and its families. The priests are involved in school activities on a daily basis. St. Mary’s also serves students from St. Gerard and Our Lady of the Valley.

Wishes for our school: We look forward to the expansion of our parish church. Currently, most weekend Masses are held in the school gym/parish family life building.

One change we would make to our school: We would like to upgrade the facilities in order to better serve the students and their families.

How we demonstrate the Catholic faith: All the teachers at St. Mary’s consider themselves teachers of religion. In addition to daily religious lessons, weekly Mass attendance and quarterly reconciliation, students begin and end each day in prayer. Parents meet each week before Mass to pray for the special intentions that are submitted. Close coordination exists between the grade school and Sunday school programs.

Our top awards or honors are: In any given year, St. Mary Help of Christian’s alumni are among the honors graduates from our local high schools.

Music/art programs: Seventh- and eighth-graders perform a musical/comedy each year. The opportunity to participate in the “junior high play” often leads students to move into community and secondary-school drama activities. We also have youth choir for fourth-grade and up. Most recently, 17 students in our art program won 21 awards, including four “Best in Show” awards for the “Cruisin’ Carolina” competition and exhibit. Students produce a bi-weekly television program and spend the equivalent of a semester in speech classes. Musical dramas involving all our students are presented during Advent and around Armed Forces Day.

Average scores on the IOWA test: The results from September 2007 put us in the 85th national percentile in core test areas.

Do you have programs for students with disabilities? St. Mary’s School serves students with disabilities, but only in regular, mainstreamed settings. There are no self-contained or resource classrooms for students with disabilities.

What percentage of students are Catholic? Approximately 80 percent.