Story by S.L. Hansen
WAVERLY (SNR) - On Friday, Dec. 20, everyone is invited to see the annual Christmas play presented by the students of Villa Marie School for Exceptional Children. The free play will begin at 7 p.m. at St. John the Apostle School, 76th and Vine streets, Lincoln. Villa Marie alumni and their families are especially encouraged to attend.
As principal, Sister Peggy Kucera, M.S., wrote the play to showcase each student’s talents and skills, a tradition started years ago by one of her predecessors. This year’s edition is called, “Our Story: Finding Jesus and Mary at Villa Marie School.” Various scenes pay tribute to the founding of the school nearly 50 years ago, daily life at Villa Marie, and the Christmas story.
Christmas songs are scattered throughout the production, culminating in a big finale with all Villa Marie alumni and Marian Sisters who have been connected with the school joining the current students for “Silent Night.” There will also be a special presentation for Msgr. James Dawson, who founded the school.
“To think that Villa Marie has operated for 50 years is just unbelievable,” Msgr. Dawson said.
Msgr. Dawson was superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Lincoln for many years. In a meeting of diocesan superintendents in 1963, he learned that the hosting diocese had converted an orphanage into a school for children who had developmental challenges.
At the time, Bishop James V. Casey was in the process of building a new orphanage near Waverly on the campus where the Marian Sisters’ motherhouse and Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House had been constructed. Msgr. Dawson contacted the priest in charge of Saint Thomas Orphanage to ask about turning the old orphanage into the school.
He was stunned when Father Tucek suggested that he take over the new orphanage in Waverly instead. So many children were being adopted at that time, a new orphanage simply wasn’t necessary.
After gaining Bishop Casey’s permission, Msgr. Dawson set to work. The new orphanage had been designed with a chapel, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms and convent on the upper floor, which was a great start for a boarding school.
Unfortunately, the first floor had been left as an open space with a dirt floor so that the orphan children could ride their bicycles in any kind of weather. And Msgr. Dawson had no money to construct classrooms on that level.
Suddenly, a phone call from Saint Louis changed everything. His cousin Winifred, who was not Catholic, called to get some advice about how she should leave her estate.
“I told her about Villa Marie, and she left her whole estate to the school,” Msgr. Dawson said. “I got the will a few days later, and she died a few days after that.”
The Marian Sisters were asked to staff the school, which opened January 2, 1964.
“They are the geniuses who really make it work well,” Msgr. Dawson said. “I provided the place and the funds, and they did the work.”
Sister Peggy said that the reason students find success at Villa Marie is because the education is focused on individual accomplishments.
“They thrive because they get the individual attention they need at the level where they’re at,” she explained. “We celebrate baby steps, so they are able to excel and keep excelling every day.”
Students learn more than academics. The sisters and dedicated lay teachers also teach the children life skills that prepare them to get a job, run their own household and live independently.
Sister Peggy related the story of one recent graduate who started Villa Marie so afraid of every little thing, she spent much of her time hiding under tables and chairs.
“When she left she was doing presentations on autism,” Sister Peggy said. “That’s one of the biggest blessings, to help them see the gifts God has given them.”
The students are also a blessing to their teachers.
“Somehow by God’s gift to a special needs child, they are often very close to God,” Sister Peggy said. “Their faith is very much an inspiration to those of us who work with them to increase our faith and trust in God.”
She mentioned one student in particular who always reminds Sister Peggy to trust in God when things get stressful.
“This is her last year here, and I’m really going to miss her because she’s one of those students whom God put into my life to keep me on the right path,” Sister Peggy said.
“I would just say for my part a big thank you to Bishop Casey and Msgr. Dawson for saying yes to God and starting Villa Marie School,” she added.
All are welcome to attend Villa Marie’s Christmas play. The performance is free, and raffle tickets for Villa Marie’s annual dance and fundraiser will be available for purchase.
Sister Peggy noted that since the school is not attached to a parish, they rely completely on donors and other benefactors, including the very generous Knights of Columbus councils from across the state (including the other two dioceses).
It is only because of this generosity that Villa Marie can continue to operate with sliding-scale tuition so that parents are not overly burdened by the cost of educating a child with special needs.
To learn more about Villa Marie’s exceptional education program, arrange for a student/parent interview and visit, or purchase tickets to the annual dance in January, call 402-786-3625.
Villa Marie School kicking off 50th anniversary at annual Christmas play
Story by S.L. Hansen