For Beth Salvatierra, the school community at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne can be summed up simply: “Everybody cares about everybody,” she said.
It’s been evident to her since her oldest daughter started kindergarten in 2015, and teachers went out of the way to learn her younger children’s names, too. Just recently, Salvatierra’s niece was diagnosed with cancer. Although her niece is not a member of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne school or parish, Salvatierra received a call from principal Owen Dabek one day to ask: We’ve heard about your niece’s diagnosis, and could we do a school dress down day to raise money for your niece’s family?
“They really care about families, so very tangibly,” Salvatierra said.
When teachers and parents were surveyed last fall about their experience in Catholic schools around the archdiocese, both groups named a strong “sense of community” as something they love and would like to see continue.
When principal Dabek thinks about the St. Rose community, the first word that comes to mind is “welcoming,” he said. The community is no stranger to change; the parish and school were formed in 2005 from the merger of St. Dismas, Our Lady of Fatima and St. Thomas the Apostle, at the time of many consolidations in north St. Louis County. In 2018, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne joined St. Norbert and St. Ferdinand schools to form the collaborative All Saints Academy.
The community has also welcomed many students from other North County schools that have closed in the past several years, including St. Angela Merici and Christ, Light of the Nations in 2017 and 2020.
Dabek came to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne as a middle school language arts teacher after Holy Trinity School in St. Ann closed in 2019. After experiencing a school closure himself, he’s tried to be attentive to the challenges of new families who join the school. One big way is “to let them share their stories — tell us about what it was like at your previous school and what you want to see here,” he said.
The school building, too, has seen many changes. It’s located on the former St. Thomas the Apostle campus, in a building that previously housed Prep Seminary North. The old St. Thomas School next door is now St. Catherine Retirement Community.
“This space has existed as a Catholic school for over 50 years, but it’s had so many permutations of what that is,” Dabek said. “I think that really shows the strong sense that in this community, people value Catholic education.”
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Parish is located at the former St. Dismas site, about a mile and a half from the school. To bridge the physical distance, the parish and school make an effort to have combined events, like the popular fall festival, said Father John Nickolai, pastor. On Wednesday mornings, daily Mass is held on the school campus instead of the parish, so parishioners join students for Mass. Every year, parishioners adopt students as “prayer partners,” choosing a student’s name to pray for throughout the school year.
“There’s just been this cultivation of awareness here that it’s necessary to make everyone who might be interested in the school or in the community feel welcome, or feel like they’ll be accepted and they’ll also have something to contribute,” Father Nickolai said.
As the school model has evolved, the St. Rose community has found strength in its people — especially involved parents and enthusiastic teachers, Dabek said — and in collaboration. The three campuses of All Saints Academy are also part of the Federation of Catholic Schools in North County, an agreement among parishes to work together and share resources to further Catholic education in the area. This collaboration can come in practical ways; as a language arts teacher, Dabek recalls coordinating lesson plans with other All Saints Academy teachers to be able to share copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example.
The federation has a shared technology library that includes virtual reality glasses and a GlowForge, which can be programmed to engrave wood and other materials — things that would not be possible for each school to own with just its own resources, Dabek said.
Cindy Driskill, a second-grade teacher at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne School, came to St. Rose in 2005 with experience teaching at Corpus Christi in Jennings and St. Martin de Porres in Hazelwood, among others. She’s met some of her best teacher friends through the North County federation, exchanging ideas and sharing stories.
“We get together with other teachers and share our experiences, because we’re all in the same boat,” she said.
Positive relationships among the teachers within and among schools inspires students to get along too, Driskill said. As a veteran teacher, she’s still glad to get new ideas from younger teachers, as well as share her experiences with new colleagues.
Angela Garcia, coordinator of religious education for the three campuses of All Saints Academy, appreciates opportunities to cultivate community among not just All Saints Academy but the whole federation through events like monthly “unity prayer services” held via Zoom and the federation-wide confirmation rally.
“Catholic means ‘universal’ — we’re all one, we’re all for the same goal. So why shouldn’t we work together?” she said. “We keep in mind that no matter where we are, where we are educated, whatever parish we worship at weekly…it’s the same God, and these are still our brothers and sisters.”
When he took over as principal, Dabek named his school newsletter “The Cultivator,” after a quote paraphrased from St. Rose Philippine Duchesne herself: We cultivate a small field for Christ. That’s the heart of what keeps the St. Rose community — and the greater North County community — united, he said.
“At the end of the day, the Catholic schools in North County are a labor of love of the people that support them, of the people that send their kids to the schools, and the people that work in them,” he said.
This story is the first in a short series exploring how Catholic school communities adapt to change.