Inside a sunny classroom at St. Ignatius of Loyola School in Concord Hill, sixth-grader George Stanfill carefully stirred sugar into a bowl of melted butter and honey.
“Oh, this is starting to look really good!” George exclaimed.
Flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, applesauce, baking powder and lemon zest went in next, forming a soft dough ready to roll out and be cut into hearts. No, this wasn’t home economics class — although St. Ignatius includes that in its curriculum, too — but German, evidenced by the name of the recipe in progress: lebkuchenherzen.
Lebkuchenherzen are traditional German cookies, similar to gingerbread, often given as gifts around Oktoberfest or Christmastime, German teacher Jacob Lierman explained to his students as they measured and stirred. German culture, traditions and geography are woven into the class alongside learning the language, which is taught to the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
As he carefully cut a heart out of the dough, George recalled another favorite day in class. “When we learned to pronounce the ‘R’ sound, we had to gargle water,” George said, tipping his head back to demonstrate. “It was fun.”
“I like learning to pronounce the words. And it’s fun to experience things that we haven’t done before, like this,” classmate Gracie Koch said. “Yeah, we get to do things that they do in Germany,” Grant Korman added.
St. Ignatius traces its German roots back to the early 19th century, when Catholic immigrants from Germany formed a settlement a few miles west of Marthasville in what is now southern Warren County. The Jesuits purchased a tract of land there to establish a mission, building a log church in 1840 before selling the land to Archbishop Peter Kenrick in 1857 to become a parish of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
St. Ignatius School added German classes to the curriculum five years ago, introducing the language back into the school for the first time in modern memory, said principal Arlesa Leopold.
“It’s important for our school because of the German heritage in the parish,” Leopold said. “The area was settled by German immigrants, and if you look at the last names of the students, about half of them have German last names.”
Every class kicks off with praying the Our Father, Hail Mary or Glory Be in German — that day, it was the Ruhm Sei (Glory Be), which the sixth-graders recited with little hesitation. Students also learn German-language carols for the Christmas concert each year.
“The parents, grandparents and great-grandparents seem to really appreciate it,” Leopold said. “They’re just very pleased that we’re able to do German.”
Lierman, the German teacher, is a fourth-generation alumnus of St. Ignatius School, joining the faculty this year as a student teacher during his last semester at Fontbonne University. The school has always been small — there are two grades to each classroom — and after graduating in 2017, Lierman remained involved through volunteering, including starting the first St. Ignatius alumni committee and serving on the home and school association. In 2020, he produced (and starred in) a four-part video series documenting the history of the parish and school.
His own German education was at St. Francis Borgia High School. “I knew that my family was German, and I thought it would be cool to learn the language that my family had, long ago,” he said. At St. Ignatius, his main student-teaching focus is on third and fourth grade, but with his high school experience, “I was more than happy to take (German) on and put my own spin on it to give back to the school where I had such great experiences.”
He recalls his grandparents telling stories about family members who would speak German so their kids wouldn’t understand them, as the language became less and less common in the area.
“St. Ignatius started out with the local children in the area, most of whom came from German background, speaking German and probably just learning to speak English,” Lierman said. “Now we’re to the point at St. Ignatius where we’re teaching the kids how to speak German again, bringing back in that culture and heritage.”
“Above all, it expands our perspective, realizing that we came from an area of the world that maybe today seems far off or disconnected from our lives,” he continued.
That community connection is the main reason Lierman has remained involved at St. Ignatius all these years. He’ll graduate from Fontbonne in December but plans to finish out the school year at St. Ignatius even after his student-teaching semester concludes. His dream is to continue to teach there, full time, in whatever capacity he’s needed.
“I realized that other people from St. Ignatius, many have gone on to do great things,” he said. “And I realized that the thing I want to go on to do is give back to the place that gave me the opportunities to start with.”