LINCOLN (SNR) - August 22 was doubly exciting for Catholic students in the Cheney area near Lincoln.
Some sported new shoes or new backpacks filled with new school supplies. Many had new haircuts or new eyeglasses or new smiles featuring new gaps representing teeth lost over the summer. All began school Aug. 22 at the brand new Saint Michael School.
The long-awaited opening of this parish school has required years of planning, fundraising, creativity and parish-wide volunteering.
"We have one of the strongest, most generous groups of parishioners," marveled Denise Ray, principal. "Everybody from old to young is involved…Every where I turn, there is somebody who is stepping up."
Whether it’s donating books for the library, cataloguing all those volumes, sponsoring a particular construction project in the building, painting, or anything else, Mrs. Ray has had an army of enthusiastic volunteers who have helped make the 2011-12 school year possible.
"It’s been such a labor of love over the last four years," said Patty Marmie, whose youngest child is a fourth-grader at the new Saint Michael School. "It’s really exciting."
As a parish, St. Michael in Cheney has been growing exponentially over the past several years. New housing developments on the outskirts of Lincoln have flooded the parish with hundreds of newcomers who happily co-exist with the "old-timers."
The parish has added more than 100 new families just in the last two years.
"We’ve got lots of young families, and we have that strong faith of the older people," said Mrs. Ray, who belongs to the parish along with her husband and 10 children.
As the parish grew, plans were drawn up for the new elementary school and dreams of a new church building continue to take shape.
Most of the parish families who have chosen Catholic school for their children have been sending the youngsters to either St. Joseph or St. Peter schools in Lincoln. As more and more children were added to those rosters, the idea of St. Michael having its own school became more and more feasible.
Being St. Michael parishioners and having children at St. Peter School was fine, according to Mrs. Marmie, but she believes there will be an advantage to having a school within their own parish.
"It’s going to be really great to be in one community instead of being split across two church communities," she said.
Then a couple years ago, the diocese was able to purchase the village of Cheney’s abandoned school property, which just happened to be adjacent to the parish. The building was too antiquated for simply moving in and setting up classes, but the parish was one giant step closer to making St. Michael School a reality.
Since then, enthusiasm has multiplied throughout the parish – especially since ground was broken for the new school in June of 2010.
"This school is being built by the whole parish," Mrs. Ray stated. "We could not do it without being a family and digging in and making sure we’ve got what we need."
Of course, she and the School Family Association have had quite a bit of help. They looked to the last school established in the area – North American Martyrs – and their principal, Sister Patricia Heirigs, O.S.B., provided a great deal of advice.
Mrs. Ray also relied on the principals of St. Joseph and St. Peter Schools, Sister Joseph and Sister Mary Michael, C.K. for suggestions and help.
"The biggest challenge for us has been making sure we had everything in place at the time we needed it," said Mrs. Ray.
As contractors and volunteers have worked on the building itself, the faculty and staff have been working hard all summer, too. They’ve been housed in the parish rectory all these month, taking care of every last detail.
The school was completed in an incredible nine-month construction period. Parishioner John Klimpel served as personal representative for the parish and NGC (New Generation Construction) Group provided construction management for the project.
The school, which features a Smartboard in every classroom, is possibly one of the most technologically advanced elementary school in the public or private sector.
Mrs. Ray said she enjoyed the process of assembling a new faculty of teachers who share her philosophy that any student can learn… and who take their roles as Catholic educators seriously.
"Our biggest role is that the children know who Jesus is, and that they can go to Him no matter what," Mrs. Ray stated. "Our teachers really reflect that philosophy as well."
Some of the more fun aspects of opening a school include things like choosing a mascot, school colors and a logo.
A parishioner who is a U.S. veteran came up with the idea for the mascot: the St. Michael Marauders. The mascot is a nod to Merrill’s Marauders, a famed World War II army unit that earned recognition for its successful missions behind enemy lines.
"We had a lot of ideas come in, but that one was unique and has a real positive connotation," said Mrs. Ray.
The logo is a shield flanked by the wings of St. Michael the Archangel, overlayed with a sword running down the middle. And the colors are one of the most popular combinations in Nebraska: red and white.
"Can you believe it?" Mrs. Ray said with a laugh. "No other parochial school in the city had those colors."
At press time, things were looking great, even though the new school uniforms still hadn’t shown up. Mrs. Ray had high hopes that photographs from the first day ever of St. Michael School would depict kids dressed up in the crisp new red, white and black outfits.
The first year’s enrollment numbers 134 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Next year, the school will expand to seventh grade, and the year after that will include an eighth grade, St. Michael’s first graduating class.
There is room for 270 students all told, and Mrs. Ray has no doubt they will reach those numbers in a few years. After that, there is room to expand.
For now, however, Mrs. Ray and her staff are eagerly making the newest Catholic school in the state of Nebraska a Christ centered learning facility.