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“We are rooted deep in tradition here.”
Callie Westhues watched 3- and 4-year-olds play together in a bright, open room stocked with toys and reminders of their faith.
It was opening day at St. Mary School and the brand-new St. Mary’s Little Saints preschool in Glasgow.
“We are one big family, truly a little home away from home” said Mrs. Westhues, the preschool teacher. “Our goal is to assist parents in raising their children to be the best version of themselves. God made each one of them unique and has a great plan for their lives.”
She and her husband Chad are both St. Mary graduates, as are his and her parents.
“Parental involvement has always been a huge key to student success here at St. Mary School,” Mrs. Westhues stated. “They are the first educators and models of faith.”
The couple’s four children, including preschooler Grey, are students at St. Mary.
“I want them to grow up to be the saints God made them to be, to let God be their guiding light,” Mrs. Westhues said. “I want them to know they are loved for who they are.”
Light on a hill
A new year has begun for all 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools in this diocese, each ranging from 16 to over 700 students.
Nick and Julie Monnig are St. Mary graduates, and three of their children currently attend St. Mary School.
“We are all working to do our best to strengthen our children’s faith in God and help them be who God has called them to be,” said Mrs. Monnig. “We feel like the teachers are part of our ‘team.’”
She said it’s important, especially in this time of great division, for children to learn to unify around something.
“At SMS, it’s Christ,” she stated. “Our children receive a faith-centered, Catholic education at St. Mary’s. Every aspect of their education centers on Christ.”
She added that the school provides “a warm, loving environment for our children.”
Visitors are often enchanted with the well maintained, 1912-vintage building, with portions that have been adapted for new uses throughout the years.
Doors, windows, stair rails and wainscoting touched by generations of hands endure, with sunlight through the gothic-arch-shaped windows above the front door illuminating the reminder above the main staircase: “Let your light shine!”
Religious reminders are everywhere. Kindergarteners touring the school on their first day set about counting images of the Blessed Mother.
“That’s 13 and 14,” one of them said while visiting the seventh-grade classroom on the third floor.
Eighth-grader Ava Fuemmeler and sixth-grader Lydia Friederich paused to reflect on what the new year will bring.
Ava hopes that by the end of this school year, “I’ve gotten smarter and I’ve made a bit stronger bonds with the people in my class.”
Both have been St. Mary School students since kindergarten.
“I like that when I first got here, I made a lot of friends,” Ava stated. “And I now have three or four really close friends.”
Her favorite subjects are spelling, PE and art.
Lydia said she enjoys spelling and handwriting.
Ava said that when her classes get difficult, “I try to concentrate harder on what it’s about and study more.”
Lydia said she likes the homey lunches in the cafeteria.
“When you go to school, you want the food to be good because it gets you going during the day,” she said.
Ava added that Carol Morris, the head cook, greets everyone with a smile and a kind word.
Frank and Katy Flaspohler live in Fayette, some 13 miles from Glasgow.
They recently bought a specially-outfitted school bus from the public school district in Omaha, Nebraska, had it painted and are using it to transport students to and from St. Mary School.
The bus seats 12 children and a driver. It has seatbelts and built-in fold-down booster seats with three-point restraints for young children.
“We have nine who are gonna’ ride it this year,” said Mr. Flaspohler, who went to St. Mary School, as did his father and his grandfather.
The couple are convinced that a strong Catholic education for their children is well worth the extra effort.
“Our faith has to permeate our lives,” said Mr. Flaspohler. “For children this age, the main part of their life is at school. It’s really important for faith to be an active part of that, and getting to spend the day in fellowship with kids who share your faith is valuable while they’re growing up.”
St. Mary School graduate Kent Monnig has been the principal since 2000 and previously taught sixth grade at the school.
“So, this is Year 35 for me here, total,” he noted.
He said Glasgow is a small but thriving community, and the school is sold mostly by word-of-mouth.
“They come because they had a good experience here and that’s what they want for their kids,” he said.
He lauded the fully certified faculty and staff, some of whom are now teaching the children of some of their former students.
This past winter, parishioners saw a need for a preschool to help satisfy the need for daycare, immerse young children in the daylong practice of their faith, and maybe have them continue at St. Mary School.
“It wasn’t like we had money to pull from the parish to do it,” Mr. Monnig noted. “It had to be done with gifts of time, talent and treasure, and it’s all paid for.”
He believes St. Mary School will play an important role in helping St. Mary Parish reclaim the spirituality of stewardship, in keeping with the diocesan Pastoral Plan.
“What we do at the school is going to permeate easier and will go up and out,” he said. “Father has to do his work in the pulpit, but I think the school is going to have to be involved with it for families to really buy into it.”
Through the years, Mr. Monnig has witnessed families that have drifted away from the faith be drawn back into active discipleship through the school.
“Just by their kids coming home and talking about it, it triggers something and they come back to the faith,” he said. “They start out thinking, ‘I don’t want my kids to get left behind from this,’ and they end up exploring it for themselves and thinking, ‘Yeah, I want this for myself, too.’”
Children from Glasgow, New Franklin, Fayette, Salisbury and Slater are the new preschool’s first students.
“We’re serving a wonderful need that has cropped up in the wider community, and the community has responded very well,” said Fr. Joshua Duncan, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Glasgow and Parochial Administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Fayette.
Planning for the pre-school started last December. Members of the committee researched the cost of creating space for it, along with assessing the ongoing demand and commitment to keeping it going.
The estate of a lifelong parishioner had already paid to build a storage building beside the school about a decade ago.
Families pledged the money needed to renovate the structure into the preschool and connect it to the rest of the building.
“We wanted everything in this preschool to be Catholic,” Fr. Duncan noted. “We have such a phenomenal education here at St. Mary, and we wanted to extend that into one of the most crucial development ages for kids and help their parents teach them about the rich treasures of our faith.”
The main purpose is to help them claim the eternal salvation that Jesus won for them, he said.
Mrs. Westhues said each day will include “a mixture of constructive play, and hands-on learning experiences while learning all about the life of Jesus and the saints.”
Ultimately, we incorporate our faith in all curriculum, helping them become the little saints that God made them to be,” she said.
They will attend Mass with the rest of the school — 3-year-olds on Wednesday and 4-year-olds on Friday — and will sit with the eighth-graders near the front of the church.
“In that way, they’ll be able to see what church behavior looks like,” said Mrs. Westhues. “When our little kiddos see our big kids lead by example, they in turn learn proper church etiquette.”
Stephanie Moore, the school’s new music teacher, was getting ready for her first class of children.
“Today, we’re going to learn how to listen to music, love music, sing music and move to music,” she said.
A puppet named Milo the Music Monster would assist.
“Milo only sings,” Mrs. Moore noted. “She’s very shy, but she loves to sing. And if children sing to her, she sings back to them.”
Mrs. Moore said she’s happy to be teaching in a school where her daughter, now a college student, learned to thrive.
“It’s a loving and nurturing, academically strong place,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be here.”
Many of the teachers are St. Mary graduates.
Some originally taught some of their colleagues at the school.
Janet Himmelberg, who teaches seventh grade, taught for 34 years at Keytesville R-III School before stepping down to take care of her mother.
“Later, after she passed away, this position came open and I interviewed for it,” she said. “The people at Keytesville were like a second family to me, but I have found a whole new world here.”
New, yet perennially familiar.
“It’s somewhat different from when I graduated here, but a lot of it is still the same: the structure, the religion, the uniforms,” she said.
She is convinced that school uniforms are the way to go.
“Every day, they know what they’re going to wear,” she said. “It’s easier for parents and definitely helps them in terms of ‘this is my uniform, this is my structure, this is what I’m supposed to look like, this is how I’m supposed to act.”
It’s also a symbol of the school.
“Everyone knows that if you wear it, you go to St. Mary’s,” she said. “I think it reflects well on the families and well on the school when people see them in their uniforms after school.”
She marveled at how teaching and learning technologies have evolved since she first started teaching in 1977.
“I remember when you could always recognize a teacher because they had purple fingers from the mimeograph machine,” she stated.
The new technology allowed the students to continue learning at home through the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.
“It’s such a blessing,” she said. “There’s no way we could have gotten through COVID without it.”
First-grade teacher Donna Owens has taught one or both of the parents of nine of her 10 current students.
She never stops learning in the hope of making a difference in the lives of others.
“We as teachers have to be open and ready for change, because of how society and the world has changed,” she said. “Your on-the-job training never ends. You have to be willing to change yourself to become better every day.
“Sometimes, you have to stop what you’re doing and just listen to what your students have to say and take in their amazing questions and answer them honestly,” she said.
Having gone to St. Mary School herself, Mrs. Owens considers it an honor and privilege to be teaching there for 36 years.
“We have a wonderful school, full of grace and love, great supportive families and great friendship among the faculty and students,” she said. “How could you not want to be here when we can share our faith and grow and experience the love of Jesus?”
She lauded Fr. Duncan’s and Mr. Monnig’s faith-filled leadership that makes this an awesome place to be.
“Every single day”
The preschool teachers led their students on a scavenger hunt through the entire building, looking for clues about where to find their friend, Jesus.
The last clue pointed them toward church.
“Bubbles in your mouth and marshmallows on your feet,” Mrs. Westhues reminded them as they approached the soaring edifice overlooking the Missouri River.
In the vestibule, they stood by the ornate font in which many of them had been baptized, and were reminded that Jesus was there and that they could call on Him and ask Him for help whenever they need it.
At an all-school Mass later that week, Fr. Duncan emphasized for the children that their purpose in life is to become the saints that God created them to be and to spend all eternity in heaven with Him.
“We do this by loving God, Who created us, above all things of this world and by letting that love spill over into love for our neighbor — fellow students, teachers, family and all the people we meet,” he said.
“What we do here and now, during this school year, will either help us on our journey to heaven or hurt us,” he stated. “So, we want to do everything we can to love God and our neighbor every single day.”