A quote from Mother Cabrini sits on the front desk in the main office of St. Frances Cabrini Academy in south St. Louis: “Love, and God will take care of the rest.”
Mother Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, is a fitting patron for the school established in 2003 on the campus of St. Wenceslaus Parish to serve the growing immigrant population in the surrounding neighborhoods. It was formed from the merger of St. Pius V School and Notre Dame Elementary School and is now supported by seven parishes: St. Wenceslaus, St. Agatha, St. Anthony of Padua, St. John Apostle and Evangelist, St. Pius V, St. Vincent de Paul and Sts. Peter and Paul.
Today, school families come from 15 different countries, creating a community that “sort of brings the world together,” said Pattie Murphy Voss, the school’s full-time social worker.
“I think being at Cabrini, and other places where there’s a lot of diversity, is an education in itself, just by being exposed to people of different cultures and colors and backgrounds and socioeconomic status,” she said. “And I think that everyone is better for it.”
Connections across cultures
On a recent evening during Catholic Schools Week, the school hosted a family board game night as a low-key way to foster community. Students and parents gathered over games like Sorry and Connect Four, enjoying fellowship across language barriers, said principal Caroline Koetting.
“The beauty of the board games was, ‘Come on over, join this group — you don’t need words to play these games,” she said.
Koetting herself is an immigrant, born in the Netherlands and speaking Dutch as her native language. Cultivating community in a multi-parish, multicultural school is “all about the personal connections,” she said.
In addition to the faculty, the school staff includes a full-time social worker, instructional coach and nutrition specialist to ensure each student’s needs are known and met. Friends and parishioners of the supporting parishes also often serve as unofficial “advocates,” connecting new families with the school, serving as a liaison when language barriers are present and helping make sure parents are plugged in to school happenings and other resources.
“It’s just happened over time. I have a friend who has gotten to know some Afghan refugees in her neighborhood, and she asked me, ‘tell me about what services you offer? What can I do to help them get their kids ready?’” Koetting said. “It becomes our own friends and family, too, who are encountering these people in parish work or volunteering, or however they encounter them.”
Father Paul Niemann of St. Pius V is the current pastor-designate for the school, working with the other six supporting pastors to provide spiritual care for the school. About 10 priests from area parishes take turns celebrating the weekly all-school Mass.
“It’s nice for the students because they get to connect with their own parish pastor, or they get to experience a different priest, different homily,” Koetting said. “In terms of sharing the faith, they’re getting really broad perspectives even on the Gospel.”
Teachers find ways to celebrate the students’ diverse backgrounds in the classroom, while the children naturally form friendships with anyone and everyone. In Kathy Torrington’s first-grade classroom, “we read about all different ethnicities and cultures,” Torrington said. “We make sure our reading is very rich with diversity.”
Eighth-grade teacher Heidi Piatchek has been at St. Francis Cabrini since the school’s founding. She’s seen different immigrant populations ebb and flow in the past 20 years, but at the end of the day, “middle school kids in the United States, in Burma, in Eritrea, in Liberia, are all middle school kids — they’re the same,” she said. “If a kid likes robotics, they do robotics, and their friends will be the robotics kids regardless of race, color or religion.”
Tina Columbo’s three children graduated from St. Frances Cabrini. A parishioner of St. Pius V, she was part of the conversations about the future of St. Pius V School that happened the year before the merger. Her family chose Cabrini because of the real-world diversity, not just in race but also in culture and socioeconomic background. “Our school is a reflection of our neighborhood and our direct community,” she said.
One way her family connected with others was through the school’s CYC sports program, where her husband was involved as a coach. “Sports is a great equalizer,” she said. “When you’re cheering for your kids, it doesn’t matter what language you’re cheering in.”
After moving on to high school and college, Columbo’s children have continued to form diverse groups of friends because that’s what they learned to do at Cabrini, Columbo said. Now the school’s administrative assistant, she works to cultivate community with school families from the other side, drawing on her own experience as a parent.
“Listening to the people, listening to the community and what they want, goes a long way. Because that is what made us — listening to everyone, and taking the best pieces of what everyone wanted,” she said.
‘The image and likeness of God’
The community at Cabrini is important in a few different ways, Koetting said. Students form friendships with children from different countries of origin or backgrounds, which naturally encourages their parents to get to know each other, too. That gives families a fuller picture of the Body of Christ and the universal Church.
The diverse school community also provides a place for recent immigrants to the neighborhood to meet others from similar backgrounds — small communities within the larger community.
There’s strength in both the similarities and differences found within the community, Koetting said. And no matter how the student body may change or evolve over the years, Cabrini will welcome all who come through the door — just as Mother Cabrini herself did.
“I think that’s who we’re called to be — inclusive,” she said. “We’re all created in the image and likeness of God.”
This story is the third in a short series exploring how Catholic school communities adapt to change.