Story by S.L. Hansen
YORK (SNR) - All parishioners, school staff, alumni and others connected with St. Joseph School in York are invited to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary, July 25-27.
Festivities will begin Friday with an informal alumni gathering at 7 p.m. in the York Elks Club. On Saturday at 7 p.m., an alumni banquet will be held at the York Country Club.
Sunday’s events begin at 12:15 p.m. with an open house at the school. Mass, celebrated by Emeritus Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and alumni priests will begin at 2 p.m., and a free-will barbecue and activities for children will follow at 3 p.m.
In August 1888, Bishop Thomas Bonacum learned that Nebraska Methodist College in York was closing after only eight years of operation, due to financial difficulties. He purchased the seven-acre property to use for St. Joseph Parish as a church and school.
There were two nicely designed brick buildings on campus. A three-story structure housed the college classrooms, and two-story residence hall featured 27 student rooms.
Knowing of the Ursuline Sisters’ excellent work in Crete, Bishop Bonacum invited 15 Ursuline sisters to come from Peoria, Ill., to operate the school. It took a little while to organize things and to build an administration building, but the sisters opened the school in the fall of 1890, welcoming 46 children from York and the surrounding area.
The sisters taught all grades at St. Ursula’s Academy, from elementary school through high school. By 1914, the high school had been accredited by the University of Nebraska.
On the occasion of the school’s 100th anniversary, former teacher and librarian Ruth Goodrich wrote, “The success of the school was due in great part to the versatile, efficient and well-trained education from Sister Margaret Mary Welter.”
Sister Margaret Mary insisted on thorough and professional training for all the teachers. She also employed specialists in art and music to broaden the students’ educational experience.
The dormitory housed many students, all girls. Boys ages 12 and under were housed on the third floor of the college building. Older boys had to make their own arrangements.
Many of these were children from rural areas and small towns around York, who boarded during the week and went home on weekends, but some came from western Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and even Detroit and New York.
Boarding school rates before the turn of the century amounted to $110 a year - $90 for 10 months of room and board, $10 for tuition and $10 for washing. Day students from York paid $3.50 a month to attend school, which included lunch.
By 1908, the school was bursting at the seams, so Sister Margaret Mary requested and received permission from Bishop Bonacum to build a new three-story building, St. Angela’s Hall. In addition to housing the auditorium, science laboratory, library and piano rooms, the hall was home to the chapel, the convent, the girl’s dorm, and separate dining rooms for the girls, the boys and guests.
The school continued to be blessed with academic success. In 1920, St. Ursula’s Junior College was established. It was briefly renamed Merici College before it was discontinued in 1933 due to change of state regulations.
Well into the night of May 30, 1936, the 55 sisters who worked at the school awoke to a devastating fire that eventually destroyed St. Angela’s Hall and the administration building (which had been pressed into use as a hospital for some years). Nobody was killed, but all student records and a great deal of property were lost.
Out of love for the Ursulines, the citizens of York opened their homes to provide rooms for the sisters and opened their pocketbooks to make up the difference that insurance would not cover. A new building was finished and dedicated in May 1939.
Not long after the fire, the Ursuline superiors decided to close the York convent and disperse the well-trained sisters to other schools that were badly in need of capable teachers.
In their tenure there, the Ursuline sisters had seen 116 girls and four boys enter the religious life, 25 young men become priests, and more than 100 non-Catholic students convert to the Church. The sisters left in 1942 and the Benedictine Sisters of Yankton, S.D., took their place.
The Benedictine Sisters renamed the school, “Saint Joseph Grade and High School” in September 1942 and continued to offer the same quality, Catholic education.
In 1966, the high school grades were eliminated, and the school has been educating kindergarteners through eighth-graders ever since.
The Benedictine Sisters left in the mid-1990s, and the school was without religious sisters for two years. However, the Franciscan Apostolic Sisters have been para-educators for the last two decades, working in harmony with the lay teachers and staff.
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