A calm, blue sky with just a touch of haze met the procession of vehicles heading toward Clark Avenue and East McCarty Street.
There were hugs and selfies and choruses of “Welcome back. We missed you.”
This was the 104th first day at Immaculate Conception School, “a hidden gem” in the heart of the Capital City.
Principal Heather Schrimpf opened car doors for students while Father Geoffrey Brooke, associate pastor of I.C. parish, greeted them at the school entrance.
“It’s fun seeing the parents on the first day,” said Fr. Brooke. “You see the whole range of emotions on their faces. And each of them trusts us enough to help raise and educate their children and help them grow in faith and knowledge.”
The sprawling complex was coming back to life, sending new waves of energy through the entire parish.
The children sifted into sparkling, freshly decorated classrooms, took their seats and began segueing from summer to a new semester.
At 7:45 a.m., Mrs. Schrimpf greeted everyone over the P.A.
“Good morning, everyone, and welcome back to school,” she said. “Today we will Have responsibility, Act safely, Live Christ-like and Offer respect here at I.C.”
Those are the four pillars of the H.A.L.O. program, I.C. School’s version of Missouri’s protocols for School-Wide Positive Behavior Support.
After announcements and a prayer, everyone then went into the hallway, prayed the Morning Offering together, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
For a moment, Mrs. Schrimpf was back in time.
“This is where I went to school,” she said. “I have these moments when I remember standing in these same halls and saying those same prayers and singing those same songs.”
Nearby, in the Incarnate Word Building, new kindergarteners ascended stairs once trodden by Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.
This was the home of the women whose congregation founded I.C. School in 1914 and who staffed it for decades thereafter.
Their influence still radiates throughout the campus and the community.
Outside the deftly repurposed building, a newly installed playground awaited its first encounter with children in the pre-kindergarten program. Soon, their shrieks and laughter would echo across the neighborhood.
Up at the Pleus Building, part of which served for 10 years as the parish’s first church, sixth- through eighth-graders unpacked their supplies and their aspirations for the year.
“I think life at school here is really great,” said eighth-grader Kennedy Kupec. “And no matter what classes you’re in, they always include religion and faith in every project. It’s everywhere around you.”
This year’s theme for I.C. School is “Set An Example” — from 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity.”
That message resonates with eighth-grader Charlie Hinds.
“We use the H.A.L.O. program, which is based on respect, and that’s promoted throughout the school,” he said. “It’s not just for the classroom. It’s things you can use every day, wherever you are.”
He said he prays for his teachers and his schoolmates each morning.
“I pray for everyone to stay safe and be happy and have a good life,” he said. “I pray for our teachers to be able to help us become better people and better students.”
Eighth-grader Bella Lyskowski, this year’s student council president, said she’s grateful for the education she’s getting.
“Our teachers are very good at helping us learn,” she said.
Praying for her schoolmates and herself, she asks God “to help everybody have strength and become better at being who we are created to be.”
“We will be a classroom full of readers,” Stacey Eisterhold reassured her fifth-graders.
She later pointed out: “If you are organized, it makes life a whole lot easier. Being organized is half the battle.”
This is her 16th year at I.C. and her 24th year in Catholic education.
She refers to her students as “my kids,” even to her own children, who are now grown.
“I have two families,” she said, “my family at home and my I.C. family. You and I are all part of one big I.C. family.”
Doris Lueckenhoff went to a Catholic school, got a degree in elementary special education and taught for 31 years in a public school. She loved that, but she had always dreamed of “coming home” to a Catholic school.
Now she’s a resource teacher at I.C., mainly focusing on helping fifth- through eighth-graders overcome difficulties in learning.
“One thing I noticed right away is how positive everyone is here,” she said.
She believes I.C.’s efforts to help students across a wide range of abilities, learning styles and temperaments is part of what makes the school truly Catholic.
In addition to helping students find creative ways to learn, she enjoys visiting with them around school and making them smile.
“I like being their cheerleader,” she said. “I like telling them, ‘You can do this. You can get it done,’ and maybe showing them different approaches and ways to study.”
She also prays for them.
“I just ask God to help them be willing to open their hearts to trying something new and different,” she said. “I pray for all the kids every day, so that they can know success.”
“Above and beyond”
Kristy Berkey attended I.C. School, as did her mother. She now has three children at I.C. and a sophomore at Helias Catholic High School.
She’s extremely grateful that the parish supports the school, making it possible for her to send all of her children there.
“The teachers have been phenomenal,” she said. “They go above and beyond. They stay late. They make real sacrifices because they want to be here.”
She’s also impressed with the service and leadership opportunities students get, especially in the upper grades.
She wants her children to know God and have a relationship with Him.
“The Eucharist is the center of our life of faith, and they get that here,” she said. “And they learn about how important it is.”
School Board member Rebecca Scheuler’s children are I.C. students, as was her husband and others in his family.
“I’m a transplant, but from my very first visit here, I’ve been impressed with the culture,” she said. “I am so grateful that we have the opportunity to send our kids here.”
Her children have gotten excited about service and lending a hand to others in the community.
“I.C. really provides opportunities for the kids to see what’s happening around them and empowers them to help make real changes in the world,” she said. “Service helps them see how much they have to be grateful for, and that makes them want to be even more of service.”
She appreciates that her children are excelling academically and in terms of Christian-infused respect for others.
“Our kids are learning to be respectful in a world that is ever-changing, and to be thankful for their blessings and to also ‘pay it forward’ in terms of helping other people,” she said.
A principal on a visiting team of Catholic educators during I.C. School’s self-study last year dubbed the school “a hidden gem.”
“The culture there is so positive,” observed Elaine Hassemer, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School in Columbia.
Mrs. Schrimpf said none of this would be possible without a strong buy-in from the parents and teachers, as well as generous support from the entire parish.
“First and foremost, these things have to be fostered at home,” she said. “If we’re going to keep promoting the Catholic faith, it can’t only be done here during the school day.”
She pointed to countless volunteer hours — from those who tutor to those who help build things and keep them in good repair.
“Whenever there’s a need and we put it out there, we don’t have just one or two people say they can help,” she said. “We have multiple people.”
She noted that today’s children are growing up in a world that’s uncertain and sometimes downright scary.
“This is one place they know they can feel safe and learn about God with their friends,” said Mrs. Schrimpf. “And once they step outside of these walls and move on with their lives, we will have given them something that they can carry with them forever.”
She remembers watching her mother write sacrificial checks to the parish while she was growing up.
“Even when times were tough, she always said, ‘We still have to give,’” Mrs. Schrimpf recalled. “To this day, that’s the kind of dedication that still keeps us going.”
She said there are too many dedicated educators, staff members and volunteers to mention. Individually and collectively, they leave her awestruck.
“It all centers on Christ, and they want to share that with others,” she said.
Father Donald Antweiler, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish, believes I.C. is truly a ministry of the entire parish.
“I’m very gratified at how well everyone here seems to ‘get’ that,” he said. “And I’m very proud of our diocese for promoting that understanding for all of these years.”
He said the school is an important part of the parish’s efforts to bolster the community of faith within the parish, in the surrounding neighborhoods and far beyond.
“Our school is a catalyst for building-up the Body of Christ, showing young people how to be His heart and His hands,” he said.
Eighth-grade religion teacher Phyllis Emmel said she’s thankful not only for parishioners’ ongoing material support of the school.
“I’m grateful to the parish for the witness of living the faith out for these past 104 years, and counting,” she said.