Saint Agnes School hasn’t been exempt from challenges in its 125-year history, but the journey has made the Catholic school that much stronger.
This year’s Catholic Schools Week is especially joyous for Saint Agnes—the coed, K-12 school in St. Paul, Minn., marked the feast of its patron, St. Agnes, last Tuesday and welcomed home alumni to kick off its celebration of 125 years of excellence, with a renewed commitment to strong Catholic identity, according to the school’s new website.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has designated January 26th-February 1st as Catholic Schools Week with the theme, “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service,” according to the bishops’ website.
Saint Agnes’ history as a community of Faith began in 1888, when it was founded in a small Austro-Hungarian neighborhood by a congregation of religious sisters. By the 1970s, the school had grown into a large, regional k-12 institution, and the faculty began to switch precipitously to nearly all laypeople. Financial difficulties and low student enrollment in the late 1990s and 2000s forced the school leaders to consider possibly closing in the spring of 2007 if issues were not addressed.
“It was a real crossroad,” Saint Agnes Principal James Morehead told St. Paul Pioneer Press about the school’s desperate situation. “There were a couple benefactors who stood up at the last minute and saved the school.”
Saint Agnes was blessed to stay alive and made decisions to flourish. The school has since found two keys to its current success: a renewed focus on Catholic identity and a strong liberal arts curriculum.
Michael Adkins, Academic Dean of Saint Agnes School, told The Cardinal Newman Society in correspondence on January 21st that the school wants the Catholic faith to permeate everything it does. He explained, “Our school has rejected education for mere utility and embraced education for personal formation, vocation and the unity of faith and reason – developing young persons’ ‘Catholic minds.’”
The importance of strong Catholic identity was emphasized in the USCCB’s announcement about Catholic Schools Week. Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Education, said that Catholic schools are “bright light[s] in the history of the Church in the United States” and help students answer Jesus’ invitation to be His followers with “generosity and faith.”
Striving to ensure that Saint Agnes remains a “bright light,” Adkins explained that the school has “committed to strengthening [its] Catholic identity not only through teaching the faith and religious practices (which were already strong), but also primarily through the very courses we offer – emphasizing the traditional liberal arts and the classics.”
For example, all high school freshmen are required to take Introduction to Logic & Philosophy, a course which focuses on the study of traditional logic and surveys the most important thinkers of the west, introducing students to the basic thought of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and others.
The new liberal arts approach differs from Saint Agnes’ previous curriculum model, which was similar to its public school counterparts. In order to thrive, the school had to offer a distinct alternative to public institutions and other private school competitors, Adkins said.
Now according to its curriculum statement, the “curriculum is broken down into the divisions of Grammar (K-6), Logic (7-9) and Rhetoric (10-12) focusing on religion/theology, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, science, fine arts and foreign language study.” It “emphasizes the Virtues, the Catholic intellectual tradition and their origins in the Greco-Roman world.”
The hard work is paying off. The school has garnered a faculty united in the Faith and mission of the school, balanced its budget and begun to build capital, increased student enrollment, updated facilities, raised over $5 million for the 125th anniversary Capital Campaign, exhibited strong student academic and co-curricular achievement, and has worked to maintain the lowest possible tuition rates in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In 2012, Saint Agnes was named to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic High School Honor Roll for excellence in Catholic education.
“We anticipate steady growth in the coming school year and look forward to applying once again for The Cardinal Newman Society’s Top 50 award, having made various improvements to the school since applying in the spring of 2012,” Adkins told The Cardinal Newman Society. “God has abundantly blessed our school, I think, because our main goal has been to be faithful to Him and His desires for young people above anything else.”