Leona Emmerich lived for decades across the street from St. Joseph Church and School in Salisbury.
She would go to weekday Mass, and many of the children would come up to her afterwards and give her a hug.
“God loves you,” she would tell them, “and so do I!”
A long-awaited, enduring reminder of those bonds of affection is taking shape at the St. Joseph School (SJS)complex.
A 5,848-square-foot addition, paid for by Mrs. Emmerich’s estate, will include four regular classrooms; a multi-purpose room for band, choir, art and STEM activities; additional restrooms; and storage space.
Part of the current building will be converted to a cafeteria and a new school library.
There will also be room for a pre-school to be opened in the current building next fall.
“We are so appreciative of Leona and her generosity for making our dream come true,” said SJS Administrative Assistant Debby Henke, a longtime friend of Mrs. Emmerich.
The addition will relieve some crowding and fill the need for creative use of space in the current building, which dates from 1957.
The school has managed to increase enrollment over the past several years, despite a tight job market in Chariton County that has led to a steep loss in overall population.
There are currently 121 students. Some have classes in what was once the boys’ locker room.
The gym does triple duty as the cafeteria and music room, sending thunder from the beginner band class rumbling through the school.
“We’ve been great stewards of our resources through the years, and we make the best of things,” said Principal Cathy Fuemmeler. “But with our growing enrollment, this building expansion is something we really need.”
St. Joseph School is one of 39 Catholic schools in the Jefferson City diocese, educating more than 6,500 students this year.
Construction began this spring and persisted through an unseasonably wet summer.
The work continued as students in kindergarten through eighth grade arrived Aug. 20 for their first day of school.
Many of them paused for photos with Mrs. Fuemmeler before gathering for prayer in the gym and heading over to St. Joseph Church for Mass.
“We’re ready for this,” kindergarten teacher Lynn Bertsch said outside church as her 18 new students gave a thumbs-up.
Fourteen of the kindergarteners have older brothers or sisters in the school.
“This is an excellent education,” stated Kent Strodtman, father of four SJS students. “The teaching staff is fantastic. There’s a real sense of community at the school, and it’s a true Catholic education from top to bottom.”
Mr. Strodtman and his siblings all graduated from St. Joseph School.
“As parents, we understand our role as our children’s first teachers,” he said. “It’s our job to live the faith and help reinforce it. And by sending them to this school, we give them the opportunity to obtain knowledge while growing in faith.”
Yulia Zakomornya has a son in third grade at St. Joseph.
“I’m really happy we found this school,” she said. “Actually, I believe God found this school for us.”
She likes how prayer, tradition, faith, Mass and the Bible help define the school day.
“This school has it all,” she said. “It’s family-oriented. The teachers are great. The community is great.”
Her son, Danil, enjoys the lunches the cooks prepare, the aftercare program, and events such as the spring and Christmas band and choral concerts, student productions, and basketball tournaments.
“The concerts are amazing,” said Ms. Zakomornya. “Everyone looks forward to them. And last year at the Christmas concert, the band played a piece from Tchaikovsky. Being from Russia, I was amazed at that.”
Both of them love being part of a welcoming, God-loving community.
“I believe this is one of the best schools anyone could send their kids to,” she said.
Ms. Zakomornya and her son have set aside a room in their house for prayer, and they go there to pray together before he goes to bed.
“Praying in general became part of our lives since he started going to school here,” she said. “I’m not sure if we’d be doing that if he weren’t here.”
“Trying to do His work”
“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning! It’s time to sing Your song again!”
Children’s voices flooded St. Joseph Church with Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” as Father Michael Murphy approached the altar.
“We gather on this beautiful morning to give worship — PRAISE — to our loving God!” said Fr. Murphy, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Salisbury and of St. Mary of the Angels parish in Wien.
He urged the young people to spend this school year inviting Christ deeper into their hearts and sharing His love with each other.
“When we pass along that goodness in our homes, in our classrooms, on the playground or any of the many other places we get to interact and share God with each other, we’re really building each other up in God’s love,” he said.
Outside after Mass, many of the children gave fist-bumps to Fr. Murphy and hugged their parents and grandparents before heading off to class.
Bob Marek, who graduated from St. Joseph School when it still had a high school, said it’s a wonderful place.
“What we have here is a community dedicated to the Lord, and they’re trying to do His work the best they know how,” he said.
That kind of effort can’t be anything but pleasing to God, he said.
Debby Henke, the school’s office manager, sent her children to St. Joseph School, and now her grandchildren are going there.
“I love this school, and I want it to thrive,” she said. “The quality of the education and the Catholic upbringing — that’s great for our parish and our community.
“Our students go on to excel in high school,” she said. “I love that we’re helping them get ready to go to college and eventually go to heaven.”
Heading back into school, the children stepped over well-worn messages on the sidewalk: “Smile. God loves you. Be Christ-like. Be respectful. Be responsible. Be kind. Be forgiving. Be amazing. Be loving. Be humble. Be silly. Be you.”
Third-grader Jacob White said the school has great teachers, a great priest, and nice cooks.
“Everyone’s nice,” added third-grader Callie Henke.
Jacob requested prayers for a good school year.
Callie asked for prayers for everyone to stay safe.
“They’ll always come back”
Tricia White has been teaching part-time at St. Joseph School for several years.
She moved to Salisbury with her family when she was in fourth grade and started at St. Joseph.
Four of her children have graduated from the school, and her other three are there now.
She said her family is sold on the quality education and Catholic formation they receive there.
“They’re learning their faith and growing up in a Catholic environment and a Christian atmosphere,” she said.
There’s no guarantee they won’t ever stray from the faith. But with the foundation they’re getting, “they’ll always come back to what they grew up with,” she said.
Each year, a handful of families who are not Catholic send their children to St. Joseph because they appreciate the combination of faith and excellence.
“I’ve seen several school families join the Church over the past 10 or 15 years,” Mrs. White. “They go to Mass and participate in every way they can. They learn the prayers and the faith right along with the kids who grew up Catholic.”
Old family recipe
Mrs. White is convinced that none of this could happen without all of the dedicated volunteers who help the school function and continue paying its bills.
That kind of commitment, which families tend to catch when they’re new to the school, often trickles down through the generations.
“The roots are pretty deep here,” said Mrs. White.
A favorite fundraiser for generations has been the famous St. Joseph Cinnamon Rolls, sold at school basketball games, tournaments and rummage sales.
Volunteers get together to bake hundreds of them according to a time-honored recipe.
Families from as far away as Boonville call ahead to order enough to go around.
“I tell you, we’re famous for them,” said second-grade teacher Robyn Henke, whose grandmother-in-law, along with other women in the parish, helped perfect the recipe.
“They’re the best cinnamon rolls I’ve tried in my life,” said Mrs. Zakomornya.
No fish in the trees
A highlight for many of the junior high school boys are the Friday STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities.
“Our boys would die before missing school on Friday,” said Mrs. Fuemmeler. “And if an eighth grade boy thinks school is fun, then we’ve got something.”
The Friday STEM activities are hands-on and interactive.
“It’s amazing how kids shine when they don’t have to follow the traditional rules of ‘sit down and be quiet and take your notes,’” she said. “You discover all kinds of gifts.”
Mrs. Fuemmeler and her husband sent their three children to St. Joseph School.
She previously taught, coached and was the school counselor at public schools in Salisbury, Keytesville, Brunswick and Moberly.
“I taught many of the parents before I became principal here,” she said. “They know that as a teacher, I loved them and cared about them, and that I will love and care about their kids, as well.”
She’s determined to make sure St. Joseph School helps students who have different needs achieve their highest level of success.
“There are all different kinds of learners,” she said. “And we learn from them while they learn from us.”
The key is to find ways to motivate the children to learn without “trying to fit everybody in the same box.”
“There’s an old saying: If you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree, you’ll never find out how well it can swim,” she said.
While touring the construction site, Mrs. Fuemmeler said she’s convinced that God will be working every bit as vigorously in the new portion of the building as He has been in the old.
Each day, she prays for the students to “grow up to be good and decent men and women of faith.”
“I pray for their safety and wellbeing,” she added. “I especially pray for the ones who are hurting now — that they will have hope.”
Mrs. White said she prays “that I can set them an example and help lead them to Christ ... that they come to know Him and have that personal relationship with Him and rely on Him for anything they need.”
“And many times, also, I just tell God I’m thankful for each one of them and for all the gifts they’ve been given,” she said. “You can see that in abundance. I’m just amazed by the talent.”