Thursday, April 20, 2017
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
FORT LAUDERDALE | In 1926, St. Anthony School opened its doors in the outskirts of the failed boomtown of Fort Lauderdale. But as a category five hurricane struck on the second day of operations, Broward County’s first Catholic school quickly got down to business sheltering storm victims.
The school, on the National Register of Historic Places, weathered the storm well, and went on to become a cornerstone of Fort Lauderdale alongside St. Anthony Church, Broward’s first Catholic parish. Irish born Father John O’Looney arrived in 1928, and as a visionary builder and spiritual leader, became a driving force for decades of Broward Catholic education.
On a sunny Monday morning, St. Anthony’s students from pre-K3 to eighth grade filed into St. Anthony Church for a special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski to mark the school’s 90th anniversary and that historic role in the Fort Lauderdale community.
Before the April 3 Mass, 40-year religious education teacher Patricia Solenski contemplated that history as she sat on a front pew near the altar image of Jesus ascending through blue sky and clouds.
“It was a mission territory. The men who began to establish this school were such visionaries” in planning the church as Henry Flagler extended the railroad southward, she reflected. “It had to be inspiration from the Holy Spirit. They had to see into the future, what this would be. It was all swamps. To be a part of that is just awesome.”
But in the 1970s and ‘80s, families began moving to western Broward. Enrollment declined and a nearby public school closed. Today, young families are back in the revitalized neighborhood of the now downtown parish, tucked in a quiet, green neighborhood just off Federal Highway.
“It was a stabilizing kind of presence,” Solenski said. “It’s an institution here. When these were all empty lots and small homes, St. Anthony stayed.”
In his homily, the archbishop congratulated the youngsters on the school milestone and noted how most will have graduated by its 100th anniversary, except for preschoolers. He said that the Mass was a time for gratitude.
“We are thankful for all those people 90, 80, 70 years ago, even last year, who led this school and sacrificed to continue to give Catholic education to the young people of St. Anthony’s,” he said. “St. Anthony will be a vital part of this parish and community not only for this life but for the life to come. We want you to do well for yourself but we also want you to be prepared for the life to come.”
Highlighting eternal Catholic lessons, the archbishop asked the children who created them, to which squirmy preschoolers shouted “God! Jesus!” At St. Anthony’s they also learn to follow Jesus’ teaching, he continued, like treating others as they would like to be treated.
“Because he loves us he made us to know him, love him and serve him in this life and in the next,” reminded the archbishop. “Part of our education at a Catholic school is that it teaches not only values but also virtues.”
School principal Terry Maus presented Archbishop Wenski with a print of the original school sketch by Francis Abreu, one of Fort Lauderdale’s top architects. Then students recited their mission statement, updated this year: “…We honor the graduates before us and continue our traditions to set a standard for those that will follow.”
Seminarian Ryan Saunders said afterwards that he felt like he was coming full circle, in serving at the anniversary Mass for the school where he first discerned his vocation. “It’s always been home to me,” he said.
Students past and present have studied amid the proud sense of history embodied in the Spanish-Eclectic style school building with mission style parapets. The school’s front entrance exudes a sense of warm, erudite elegance with its pensive St. Anthony statue and dark wood walls, floor and staircase that lead to the second floor library, formerly the convent. Adrian Dominican Sisters staffed the school from its founding in 1926 until 1982, when lay administrators took over.
Sitting by the staircase, science and social studies teacher Amy Jones reflected on her sense of blessing to teach at the school from which she graduated and where her mother served as principal. She said she appreciates efforts to upgrade. “Our principal is on top of technology and all the latest educational trends and she’s always keeping us on our toes and keeps us very current.”
Her eighth grade daughter Molly likes continuing the family tradition. “It’s like a family and it’s so small you know everyone. The teachers are amazing and students are amazing.”
The sporty scholar plays softball, flag football and basketball, cheerleads and is a member of the National Junior Honor Society. And, she said, it was an “amazing experience” to serve at Mass on the altar alongside the archbishop for the first time, although she was “a little nervous.”
As Molly headed to class, development director and ’62 graduate Sharon Murrah also shared her joy in coming “home” as an employee. She recalled longtime pastor Msgr. O’Looney’s classroom visitations.
“He’d come into the classroom and then read report cards out. He’d take over the teacher’s desk… If you didn’t get 100, especially in religion, you were called out and I was embarrassed and shy. He was very looming and scary!” she recounted. “He commanded and got their respect. He was Msgr. Looney. He really built this parish. Only one time in the history of this parish has there been a capital campaign. He’d just go out and ask for money and that’s how he got it.”
Growth and development
Principal Maus now works alongside the pastor, Father Michael Grady, towards growth and development, with future plans approved by the archdiocese to build a parish center. She became principal in 2014, having worked previously at St. Anthony’s from 1987 to ‘99. Her husband and children are graduates and her grandson is the first fourth generation pupil.
“We put a lot of money into the facilities and upgrading technology. We are going for STREAM certification through the Florida Catholic Conference—that’s religion and arts added to STEM. We are a pilot program and are the only school going for certification with the Florida Catholic Conference.”
Enrollment is almost at capacity at 470 students, about 14 percent having an alumni parent. The school now updates its alumni database for 100th anniversary festivities, with hall of fames grads ranging from Chris Evert to Mayor Jack Seiler.
“Catholic schools are challenged. There’s no doubt about it we are challenged. It’s very competitive out there for our students with tuition and all the things. But I think we continue to offer a better education for our students,” Maus said. “I hope our students leave St. Anthony’s grounded in a sense of God's place in their lives and with a feeling that this was a special time in their life. I hope to see them return to this place as so many in the past have.”
Among them, second grade teacher Brittany Morgan, who first came to St. Anthony’s as a 4-year old. A former public school teacher, Morgan now loves being able to talk about God in the classroom and have her two children experience Catholic education. And she’s inspired by the school’s longevity and constancy.
“I’m blessed. In my own family, I still have lifelong friends from here,” said Morgan, whose mother has also taught at St. Anthony 20 years. “It’s a very strange feeling, a sense of calm the second I get on campus. I see everything about this hallway and I’m flooded with my own memories and now with memories of my children. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Her cherished memories include being selected based on her essay to crown the statue of Mary with flowers in the school’s longstanding May tradition. Now as May approaches, “I’m sitting in church and I still find such a peace in thinking of it.”
Editor's note: The original story omitted the fact that Adrian Dominican Sisters staffed St. Anthony School for 56 years, from its founding in 1926 until 1982, when lay principals took over.