Zachary Stobart was a newcomer to Hermann when he started teaching high school 15 years ago.
He quickly figured out which of his students were graduates of St. George School.
“You could see that their direction was different, and for me being a Catholic, it was a good direction to see,” he said.
“It was the best marketing campaign for me to send my kids up here,” he stated, “because I wanted MY kids to look at problems the way those kids did.”
Mr. Stobart and his wife did send their children to St. George, and he’s now in his third year as principal there.
He spoke casually Aug. 22 amidst the hustle and keenly channeled chaos of yet another first day of school.
“It’s been a long summer, but it’s gone by fast,” he quipped.
Months of preparation and planning in the Jefferson City diocese’s 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools was coming a head.
Another school year was under way, despite the lingering pandemic.
“We’re doing whatever we can to evangelize. We’re using all of our subjects to help these kids grow academically and in their faith, and having some fun along the way,” said Mr. Stobart.
Nearby, an outrageously dressed crossing guard named Tom Eggering greeted students while dancing in the crosswalk.
“Welcome! Welcome! Brand-new school year!” he called out.
“One day at a time!” he said while exchanging a fist-bump with a young student.
Parents lined up with their children on the sidewalk, waiting their turn to take photos by the school’s iconic sign.
“You’ll remember your first day forever,” a dad told his children.
Betsy (Theissen) Stephan enjoyed the early morning sunshine with her daughters, who are in kindergarten and third grade.
“I love sending our kids to St. George School,” said Mrs. Stephan, who was once a student there.
“We wanted a faith-based education for our kids — that’s why we chose St. George,” she said. “But why we stay and why we love it so much is that we have a real school family here, and we’re really happy with the community and the friends we’ve made.”
St. George alumna Brenna Panhorst held the hand of her son Benton on the threshold of his first day of pre-kindergarten.
Her husband Brandon was holding their daughter, who was born two days before.
“We love the community, the small classes,” Mrs. Panhorst said. “We think it’s going to be great for (Benton). We’re looking forward to him making a bunch of new friends and receiving a faith-based education.”
A few at a time, the students in their fresh-pressed uniforms passed under the Holy Trinity symbol above the doorway and headed up a staircase adorned with a verse from Hebrews: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
They all wound up together in the gymnasium for prayers, the Pledge, announcements and a raucous exchange of “Rooted in faith!” ... “Growing in virtues!”
Eighth-graders held up a sign with the words to the school’s Morning Prayer, based on Colossians 3:12-15 — “Help us grow in heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. ... And over all these virtues, may we put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”
They closed with, “St. George, PRAY FOR US!”
“You are our hope”
After homeroom, the students in grades three through eight went across the street to St. George Church for their first all-school Mass of the year.
Eighth-grade teacher Kim Hoemann greeted the students before Mass with a message from the faculty.
“We want you to know that you guys are loved,” she said. “We’re going to challenge you this year to grow intellectually and spiritually, to be like Christ.”
She promised that the teachers would pray for them throughout the day, whenever they need it, and asked the students in turn to pray for their teachers and each other.
“You are our hope, our future,” she said. “And even today, you are servants and leaders. We are truly blessed. We believe in you.”
This was Father Philip Niekamp’s first school Mass since becoming pastor of St. George Parish and of Church of the Risen Savior Parish in Rhineland.
He talked about the readings and asked the students questions.
“Jesus tells us to ‘love each other as I have loved you,’” he said. “That means sacrificially. That means giving of yourself. That means treating each other as you want to be treated. That means being respectful to each other. That means paying attention to your teachers. It means not acting up in class. It means paying attention at Mass. It means literally giving of ourselves.”
Fr. Niekamp said it’s easy to hate other people, but it’s much more important to love them.
“There’s enough hate in the world right now. We don’t need any of that here at St. George,” he said. “What we need is to love one another as Christ loves us.”
“Take time to give of yourself,” he exhorted. “Take the time to love one another. That’s what our faith is about.”
“He makes me happy”
Seventh-grader Reagan Budnik has set the bar high for this new school year.
“I hope that I learn a lot and that maybe we can figure out COVID,” she said.
Her favorite subject is English. Her sights are currently set on being a volcanologist, astronomer or fashion designer.
She said she likes the politeness she experiences among her classmates and the understanding nature of her teachers at St. George.
Having been there since pre-kindergarten, she is accustomed to acknowledging God’s presence.
“I can always feel Him around me,” she said. “He makes me happy.”
She prays every night for her family to always be together, “and for God to always be part of our family and lead us.”
She asked for prayers for “every tomorrow to be better,” and for there to be “less hate and more grace and forgiveness in the world.”
Fourth-grader Macie Doyle was starting her first year in “the big building” — the 1950 portion of the school that stands next to the cupula-clad elementary building from 1916.
“I get to switch classes this year, so that’s going to be pretty different,” she said.
Her favorite subject is math. She hopes to be a math instructor when she grows up “so I can teach other kids how to be good at it.”
She hopes that by the end of this school year, she’ll be smarter and closer to God.
She said she’s aware that God is with her in the school “just by the way people are nice to each other.”
“Some of the kids — especially the boys — are very funny,” she said. “They help make things fun.”
Growing in virtue
Principal Stobart said he and the St. George teachers and staff are committed to providing in-person instruction as long as possible, and the best alternatives if the COVID pandemic makes them necessary.
“We’re trying to keep everything sanitized and clean and keep the kids safe,” he noted. “And we want them to have fun.”
The school is entering its fourth year of Virtue-Based Restorative Discipline (VBRD).
Based on a book of the same name by Lynne M. Lang of the St. Louis archdiocese, VBRD takes a step-by-step, community-wide approach to building positive relationships and encouraging behavior that leads people closer to God.
The program is designed to help students, their families and the whole parish learn from mistakes and repair any bonds broken by destructive behavior.
It incorporates prayer and a wealth of Catholic spirituality and focuses on bolstering virtues rather than punishing behavior.
“It’s a wonderful program,” said Mr. Stobart. “Every month, we focus on a new virtue. There’s a lot of buy-in from the teachers and the parents. It’s all over the hallways. Kids are reminded of it in every classroom, every day.”
He said it’s wonderful to have so much support from parents and the entire parish.
“It’s amazing how many people we have on call who just want to come up and help at school,” he said. “Even the families whose kids have already graduated and gone on to high school, they’re still coming back and helping us with things like summer maintenance.”
He noted that parents send their children into the school each day to receive a faith-based education.
“So when we send them back out, we need to have prepared them for a faith-based life,” he stated.
That means helping them build a foundation upon which to make good choices throughout their lives.
“We’re helping to get kids to heaven,” he said.
Jesse Bolte went to St. George School as a student, sends her own children there now and serves as the school secretary.
She knows God is there with her children and with her — on tough days and all the others.
“I get to teach my kiddos at home and take them to church on weekends,” she said. “Those same lessons are instilled in them here through their subjects, their classmates and their teachers. That’s the cool thing about a Catholic school.”
Mrs. Bolte’s son Jordan has the same third-grade teacher she had.
“My nieces and nephews go here as well,” she said. “But not only are we members of the same family, we’re part of the bigger family that is the St. George community, and that’s a really great thing to be a part of.”
She hopes that when her children move on, they’ll continue to be “good Christians — good, well rounded, all-around kind, God-fearing kids.”
“They really knew”
Previous principal Julie Clingman asked Mr. Eggering if he could serve as crossing guard during morning drop-off.
“She said, ‘Tom, can you help get ’em going, get ’em across and get ’em in?’” he recalled.
“I said, ‘Sure! Why not?’ And if I can bring a smile to their face so they’re not crying when they get inside, that’s a bonus,” he said.
He believes young people truly benefit from a Catholic education, as does the community at large.
“I once had a teacher who said you could always pick out the kids who went to Catholic school,” he said. “They were open, well educated, and really knew how to learn.”
Not only did Mary (Mundwiller) Steiner go to St. George, so did all of her siblings and all of her children.
Now that her grandchildren are there, she teaches third-grade religion and helps with the after school program.
She previously worked for 30 years in as an eldercare nurse before coming back to St. George.
“I felt like God was asking me to do something different — maybe lift lighter people!” she said.
Her goal is to teach like the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who were her instructors at St. George School — especially her first-grade teacher, Sister Monica.
“I think everybody felt special when Sister Monica was teaching them,” said Mrs. Steiner. “She was always so patient and so joyful.”
Every day, Mrs. Steiner prays for each child to know that he or she is important to God and that He wants them to be His disciples.
“Sometimes, I think, it’s too easy to look for happiness in things or activities that can only make us happy in the moment,” she said. “But when we’re good disciples, we find true joy that lasts and lasts.”
She noted that each child has different gifts from God and that a good teacher figures out how to draw the best out of them.
“Everybody has to use their gifts differently,” she said. “And the gifts complement each other.”