Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
MIAMI | In 1958, the year the Diocese of Miami was created, the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine founded Immaculata Academy overlooking the gleaming waters of Biscayne Bay.
Three years later, in 1961, Fidel Castro confiscated Christian Brothers of La Salle schools across Cuba. But six exiled students petitioned Bishop Coleman Carroll and Catholic Welfare Bureau Director Father Bryan Walsh to fund a Christian Brothers school for the refugee community. Within three months, a building was erected and La Salle High School was resurrected alongside Immaculata.
One of those six students, Jose Arellano, had finished his junior year at a Philadelphia boarding school and planned to return to Cuba when his uncle in Miami told him there was no going back. So he and his cousin, the late Eduardo Arellano, along with Benny Benach, Oscar Bustillo, Eduardo Sanchez and Nestor Machado first met with the Christian Brothers and resolved to help to relocate their school — at least for a year in order to graduate.
He recalled with gratitude how Bishop Carroll was “very enthusiastic.” “They built the school in 90 days. We came in, laid out the grass, put in the desks and blackboards and we went around the community recruiting students.”
The first La Salle senior class had about 30 students, about 30 percent from the Operation Pedro Pan exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba. Arellano had a “fantastic” senior year despite great hardship as his father was deceased and his mother and two siblings remained in Cuba.
“I wouldn’t have gotten through without prayer or faith,” he said. “It was an incredible story and an incredible movement by the Church.”
Immaculata and La Salle officially merged in 1970 after the construction of the adjacent shrine of Our Lady of Charity and of the school football field, science and business building in the ‘60s. After the departure of the St. Joseph Sisters and Christian Brothers in the ‘70s, the Salesians of St. John Bosco assumed leadership in 1985. The Salesian Sisters took over administration in 1995, the same year the school got its first gym — also then a Miami Heat practice facility.
Sixty years later the landmark archdiocesan school on the bay continues to enlighten the South Florida Catholic community and serve at capacity as the spiritual and academic home to 870 students — and one of Miami’s only two oceanfront Catholic schools. Students in hunter green polos inhale that ocean view and salty, fresh air and shuffle to classes through palm and bamboo accented breezeways punctuated with mosaic tile benches, images of St. John Bosco and statues of Mary. And while mostly Hispanic, students today hail not only from Miami and Cuba but from across Latin America including Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“The beauty of ILS is we have a very strong history with our alumni and a very strong legacy because of its history. These were people who came over from Cuba, were exiled and their parents put them at La Salle and they found a home,” said the school’s principal, Salesian Sister Kim Keraitis. “Today we share that same history with our students who are coming in from for example Venezuela facing all these political situations…They had a place to live here, they had jobs here, but they really wanted their kids to find a family, a community, a school family, and they’re very grateful for that.”
Having worked 40 years in education, Sister Kim confessed that she initially questioned whether she would be the best fit for ILS, being from New Jersey and not speaking Spanish. But she loved it from day one, finding time to minister as well as administer. “We have such dedicated faculty members and the kids are great here. It’s such a family and there’s such a strong support system in both the faith and academics, the professional life, that I hope I’m not reassigned for a while. It’s a place where everybody is part of everything.”
The principal also highlighted the school’s economic diversity. Tuition is approximately $15,000 yearly. “There are some really wealthy kids and some low income but when you come together you don’t know who they are. They really accept each other for themselves and not for what they have or don’t have.”
The school hosted an anniversary Royals Gala on the bay in February and will hold a closing outdoor Mass in December with Archbishop Thomas Wenski followed by a barbecue.
It’s also launching the “Building on the Legacy” capital campaign to raise $15 million for the construction of new athletic facilities as well as a fine arts/technology building to expand its STEAM offerings. Immaculata-La Salle was the first AdvancED STEM-certified Catholic school nationwide.
“We don’t want to increase our enrollment but we need more space for our kids. We didn’t build beyond the gymnasium so we really do need an athletic facility where we have proper locker rooms, training rooms,” Sister Kim said, noting about 400 students are involved in the athletics program.
Furthermore, “our school is very strong and advanced in technology and the STEAM program and a lot of these specialty programs have taken over some of the classroom space and so we really need a building just dedicated to arts and technology.”
Senior Isabella Fraguio called the academics at ILS “very rigorous” and praised her teachers as “fantastic” but said she also appreciates the nurturing environment that has helped her to overcome challenges and excel on the debate team, as drama stage manager, class representative for student government and in campus ministry leadership.
“You can get through those challenges because you have administrators and teachers and classmates who are going to be there for you,” she said.
Julio Soriano, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, serves as student director of campus ministry and finds that many students take their faith seriously. “The school really does give you tools to be able to build on your faith,” said Soriano. “The retreats, that’s a great way I’ve really been able to expand on my leadership.”
STRONGER THAN EVER
Arellano, 74, feels that today ILS is stronger than ever. Two of his children are graduates, including son Gaston Arellano who now works as director of operations. “I went on to college, to work, and all of a sudden everything comes back around and now this school is one of the best in the county and one of the best campuses anywhere in the country,” he said.
A decade ago, he found new life once again at ILS. He had suffered a stroke that left him only able to speak Spanish. A college football player, he was encouraged to coach. “It was all because I volunteered to coach football at La Salle and that brought the English back.”
The pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Church in Miami Lakes, Father Jose Alvarez, a ’78 graduate, also looks back with gratitude for the school that introduced him to “the realities that shape the world and of my own capacities and direction within that world,” he wrote in an email, adding that it did so in an environment that was “highly creative, safe and fun.”
Father Alvarez called the school’s Salesian character its most important asset. “While the school is to be commended for its cutting-edge development in many areas of education, it is the philosophy of forming youth in the spirit of St. John Bosco, as well-founded human beings — academically, spiritually, pastorally and practically — that it continues to be committed to and sets it apart from others. What other school bears that unique treasure?”