As a lifelong parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel in Shrewsbury, Kelly Klosowski was excited for her children to attend the parish school.
So when St. Michael’s school merged with neighboring schools to form Holy Cross Academy, the most challenging part for her was getting past the mental “initial leap.”
Now, with three children at Holy Cross Academy, “the sum has ended up being so much more than the individual parts for us,” she said. Her family has found the larger community to be a lesson in itself: forming friendships across parishes and neighborhoods is good for the Body of Christ.
“Our world has been widened to include people that we may not have crossed paths with standing alone,” she said. “HCA teaches our children, through example, to open our hearts and minds to others and to be welcoming and inclusive.”
She recalled attending a Good Friday service at Our Lady of Providence Church last year. Although it wasn’t their home parish, her family found themselves already among friends from Holy Cross Academy. “It was so awesome to be able to walk into another parish and feel like I was part of the extended community,” she said.
“Change is hard, but it can end up being something that you can’t imagine living without,” she said.
Learning from, growing with each other
Holy Cross Academy has now been figuring out how to cultivate community across a multi-parish, multi-campus school for 10 years. The school is supported by Annunciation in Webster Groves, Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood, St. Michael the Archangel in Shrewsbury, and Seven Holy Founders and St. John Paul II in Affton.
“What’s been beautiful for me to see is how from the very beginning, these communities came to recognize that they couldn’t continue to independently have schools, but they so desired to still have a school that they were willing to make sacrifices in order to make that happen,” said Father Mike Esswein, pastor of Annunciation Parish and the designated pastor of Holy Cross Academy. “They’ve ended up coming to know each other, pulling for each other, supporting one another and growing stronger together.”
Holy Cross Academy’s model has evolved over the years; now, the school is divided by grade level — middle school, intermediate school, primary school and pre-K — across four campuses. Creating a unified community across the campuses requires intentionality among the leadership, the teachers and the school families, Father Esswein said. The campus principals work closely with the academy president on overarching identity and vision and to create opportunities for academy-wide activities, like a special Mass for the school’s feast day in September.
The Parents Association invites parents from all the parishes to monthly events. A bus system runs between the campuses to allow families to drop off and pick up in one location. The buses also take students on trips to other campuses — eighth-graders recently visited the primary campus to share a STEM project with the first-graders, where the first-graders drew robots and the eighth-graders built the robots from the drawings.
Over the years, the unified school community has spread to other parish life areas. The parishes now have a combined Parish School of Religion, and just last year, the parishes’ Cub Scout packs formed a new Holy Cross Academy pack.
Some of the work of creating a cohesive community comes through the nitty-gritty of groups like Cub Scouts, said Kay and Bryan Sisk, parishioners at Our Lady of Providence.
“It was a really good example of how parents and kids and leaders from different groups can come together and reevaluate, what are the things we’re doing that we really want to continue? What do we want to learn from other groups, and how do we meld this together into something that’s even better than it was at any individual site?” Bryan said.
Combining Cub Scout packs involved working through everything from what prizes are awarded at the Pinewood Derby to which fundraiser to undertake. While the new pack couldn’t feasibly incorporate every single tradition from individual groups, the parent leaders have worked to ensure the ones most valued by each parish can be shared. One pack always did pumpkin carving, so they led that activity for the whole group this year. “These things are important to families,” Kay said. “The simplest thing could be, ‘oh my gosh, if you lose the pumpkin tradition, it’s all going to fall apart’ — no, we can make it work.”
“Overall, that’s how HCA resonates with us — it takes the best from each of the places that we had before and leverages it to give our kids the best experience,” Bryan said.
The way of Christ
A strong community is not cultivated without sacrifice, said Father Esswein. It was hard initially for families to realize that their parish couldn’t do everything alone anymore. “We can put our foot down and say ‘no, this is where we’ve always done it, and I’m not going to join anything else, because I don’t ever want to do it another way’ — but that’s not Christ. I think these parishes here have come a long way with that,” he said.
The lessons that Holy Cross Academy parishes have learned over the past 10 years will be useful as Catholics across the archdiocese prepare for expanded communities under All Things New, Father Esswein said.
“I think there’s a need for all of us to listen and appreciate others and other communities — what they treasure, what is their experience, what is their history, and to find a way to connect that with one’s own treasures,” he said. “And then being willing to sacrifice, being willing to answer Christ — that’s what His life is about, dying to yourself to give life to others. We’re going to really have a lot of opportunity to do that here.”
“The reality is that being independent, being completely self-sufficient, is not the way of Christ. It’s one of recognizing our own failings and faults, recognizing our need for others and being able to reach out, anticipate each other’s needs and be there to serve. We have to do that for each other,” he continued. “I think we’ll get a lot of practice with that coming forward with All Things New, and the more we’re willing to surrender to that, the more we’re willing to support it as individuals, the better it will be for our communities to grow together more quickly to be more healthy and more holy.”
This story is the second in a short series exploring how Catholic school communities adapt to change.