COLUMBIA—St. Martin de Porres School has played an important role in most of Bernetha Henry’s life.
The Columbia native and her two sisters were educated there through elementary and middle school in the 1950s, when she recalled monthly tuition averaged about $7. The Dominican sisters who taught her, and other people she met during her school years, led her to become Catholic. After graduating from college, Mrs. Henry taught science and math at her alma mater
before becoming postmaster. Her daughter Sonya was a student there too.
It’s no surprise that Mrs. Henry has been rejoicing in the school’s 75th anniversary this year. She and other alumni have attended events to commemorate the milestone, including a luncheon in September and a “Shining Stars” anniversary gala Feb. 18 in the gymnasium at St.
Joseph Church, which drew about 150 people.
The school was founded in 1936 shortly after St. Martin de Porres Church was established as a worship space for Columbia’s black Catholics.Previously they had to sit separately during Mass at
the city’s churches.
The school officially opened on Sept. 14, 1936, with 103 students in first through sixth grades. Today, the school has about 80 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The current
principal is Sister Roberta Fulton of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.
Mrs. Henry said she grew up in the Waverly neighborhood, around the corner. She recalls that Mass and school classes were held in a house on the corner of Oak and Hampton streets until the church and school buildings were completed.
She said her days at St. Martin de Porres gave her a solid academic and moral background, and the confidence to pursue her goals in life.
“There was a real camaraderie there, and we all felt a real love of the school,” she said. “The teachers gave you pride within yourself, and they made you feel like you were going to be the greatest person in the world.”
One of Mrs. Henry’s classmates later went on to make history in South Carolina. Henrie Monteith Treadwell was one of three black students, and the first black woman, to integrate into the University of South Carolina in 1963.
Treadwell, who now works at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, attended the Feb. 18 gala along with other graduates who traveled from around the United States, including Msgr. Mauricio West, vicar general and chancellor for the Diocese of Charlotte.
Dominican Sister Nora Ryan, who served as principal in the mid-1970s, drove from Atlanta with three of her fellow sisters to attend the gala.
Her order, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisc., founded the school and taught there from 1936 until 1996, when the Dominican brothers and sisters left the parish and school after 60 years.
Sister Nora recalled the names of the first three sisters chosen to work at the school: Sister Andrea Bracken, Sister Marie Theresa McGreevy, and Sister Marie Carmen Janke. They overcame many obstacles to begin the tradition of strong education that continues today, she said.
“We were blessed to be the first teachers and claim our role in this mission as a significant contribution to the African-American community in the Waverly community,” Sister Nora said. “Our work there influenced us all, and continues to influence our work as Dominicans.”
Mrs. Henry and other members of St. Martin de Porres are spreading the word about the education offered at their parish school. Even though most students at the school are not Catholic, she said, they still attend Mass each week and learn about Jesus and the Gospel
“I don’t think people recognize the value of the type of education we got and that students get there today,” she said. “We not only got an academic education, but we learned about God, and got a sense of God’s presence and Catholic values. The students still get that today.
They can’t really teach about God in public schools. That’s what the students in those schools are missing.”