St. Patrick Early Childhood Center in Rolla opens


St. Patrick Parish is built on layers of history, faith and sacrifice.

According to the parish website, the first parishioners were Irish railroad workers laboring in the frontier town during the Civil War in 1862.

Seventy-five years later, as Rolla’s sons and fathers were being sent overseas to fight in World War II, the congregation had outgrown the original building, and a stone church was constructed in 1947 at its current location on U.S. 63 and St. Patrick Lane. 

Over the years, the church has been expanded but also preserved, with a stained-glass window from the original 1800s church inside the chapel, as unbroken as Rolla’s legacy of faith.

Outside, a statue, called “Christ of the Highway,” raises outstretched arms as if pronouncing blessings on drivers leaving town.

The railroad and the highway have built and gathered a vibrant community of believers locally, but how do you maintain generations of faith? 

For more than 50 years St. Pat’s has operated a school to teach children that faith and education don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

According to parents and educators, the school has a reputation for producing bright, well-studied minds.

Like the church, the school at St. Pat’s has changed over time. No longer operated by religious sisters and clergy, the school has a diverse faculty of various faith backgrounds and disciplines teaching children from preschool through eighth grade.

Early last month, a ribbon-cutting celebrated the newest offering: an early childhood center.

The school’s preschool operates in the rooms underneath the main worship area of the stone church, while a separate parish hall is used to instruct younger grades in the upper level and more advanced grade students in the lower level.

Space is limited, so certain subjects and electives share classrooms, the gym doubles as the lunchroom and everyone within the school’s community pitches in.

“Very much of what we do here is parent involvement,” said Principal Anthony Arnold. “We couldn’t do what we do without people wanting to be a part of it and give in any way they can.” 

Sacrificial gifts

According to Mr. Arnold, it’s not only the parents who sacrifice, but also a team of well-educated and overqualified school staff who accept lower pay and professional benefits to teach at the school simply because they love it.

“Five of our teachers are alumni, who came back because they loved it so much,” said Mr. Arnold. “They want to be a part of it.”

Parents and staff actively propose and execute big ideas that transcend the limited space they share.

“We really kind of took a stone soup approach,” Mr. Arnold stated. “You have an idea and you’ve got a piece and then everybody brings one of their pieces to it.”

In recent years, some of the significant family-driven projects have been the school’s highway-bordering privacy wall, playground and science lab.

For about four years, Mr. Arnold and Anna Starns, vice principal/preschool director, discussed the need for an early-childhood center to serve the needs of parents and staff who need reliable care for children too young for preschool.

But there was no room in the parish hall or main church.

Ms. Starns puzzled over the issue and came up with a solution. Across the highway from the “Christ of the Highway” statue is the parish center.

Ms. Starns observed that one side of the building, with a large meeting room, was being underutilized.

“I looked at how often is this room used? Hardly ever,” she said. “If this was just an empty room, why not use it for something productive and help parents?” 

All hands on deck

The project began taking shape about a year ago to turn the space into an ideal facility.

Early Childhood Center supervisor Alysia Cohen drafted a floor plan for the project and worked with Ms. Starns to assess furniture and equipment needs like cribs, bouncers, changing tables, etc.

Ms. Starns said that many 12-hour days were worked over the summer, getting the interior ready to accept kids in August.

Cahill’s Construction put up drywall and framed doors and windows, and parents hung cabinets and curtains.

Ms. Cohen and other staff and their families painted alpine motif illustrations on the walls.

Boy Scouts refinished the deck outside while school custodian Irving Garcia created a custom gate to give the kids a safe, enclosed outdoor space to play.

The center has capacity for 20 kids from ages 6 weeks old to 3 years when fully staffed, with a teacher to student ratio of 1-to-4 for babies and 1-to-6 for toddlers.

The space is inviting, with clear walls and partitions and enough pastel gear to put Babies “R” Us to shame.

The facility has received a warm welcome from the community, with many signing up on the waiting list for future openings.

“It was a simple renovation to turn this underused facility into something that the community has really been needing for a long time, so we’re really excited about it,” said Will Benhardt, Ms. Cahill’s director of business relations.

“It was my understanding that the city of Rolla had a need for about 200 kids in our community for this age group for childcare,” Ms. Starns stated.

She said it was a funny coincidence because the center can handle 10% of that need, which is the Biblically mandated amount for church tithes.

“I really felt this was the right place and the right time, and I would love to be able to take more but we can’t,” she said.

In addition to physical space being a consideration for limiting enrollment for the school and early childhood center, Mr. Arnold and Ms. Starns said it’s important to maintain the proper conditions to ensure the best possible care and instruction.

“Our teachers love doing what they do,” said Mr. Arnold. “I don’t want to wear them out, I don’t want to take away from the quality of education. I want the students to get what they need.”

Faith and love

So, do you have to be Catholic to send your kids here? No, according to Ms. Starns.

Children and staff come from a variety of denominations, but everyone who teaches and studies belongs to the Christian faith, even the preschoolers.

“The lower grades we’re not teaching major doctrine theology classes, but they definitely know that Jesus loves them,” said Ms. Starns.

St. Patrick School Advisory Council President Nick Girondo, Home and School Association President Sara Lovegreen, project Construction President Tonie Cahill and City Administrator John Butz were among those present at the early childhood center’s ribbon-cutting on Dec. 5.

“This is the place where children can be loved and educated and adored on both sides of (Highway) 63,” Mr. Butz, himself a St. Patrick parishioner, said of the school and center.

“Success is done at our businesses and our nonprofits and our churches,” he continued. “That’s really the movers and the shakers of our community.”

For more information about St. Patrick School and its Early Childhood Center, visit or contact


Ms. Martinez is a staff writer for the Phelps County Focus (, which published the original version of this article on Dec. 7, 2023, and gave permission for this version to be published here.