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By Michelle Castleman (www.todayscatholicnews.org)
NEW HAVEN — The year 2015 marked a very special time for the students and staff at St. Louis Academy in rural New Haven. It was 100 years ago, on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, at 9:30 a.m. that the dedication of their new school was held after a blazing fire destroyed the former wooden structure called St. Joseph School on the French settlement at Besancon.
Historical accounts of the event detail a “grand time” with Bishop Herman Joseph Alerding, countless clergy and hundreds of visitors from near and far attending as they traveled via the interurban. After a solemn high Mass at the church, the faithful, along with the school children, marched to the school which was “gaily decorated with a dozen American flags” for a blessing of the interior and exterior of the new building.
Classes in the new school, which opened under the name St. Louis Academy, began on Oct. 4, with three teachers from the Sisters of Notre Dame (who had taught at the old school Sept. 3, 1910), and 116 students.
The fabulous new brick building boasted four large schoolrooms, a basement and auditorium — “well arranged and solidly constructed.”
During the early years, students thrived in the Catholic setting of their family-like atmosphere. Various reports found in the archives itemized improvements made.
In 1936, new concrete floors were laid in the basement of the school and in 1937 the interior of the school was painted, the floors reconditioned and stokers were installed. New storm windows were placed in the school in 1946 when the School Sisters of Notre Dame were still in charge and taught eight grades in four classrooms to 137 pupils.
The Sisters of Notre Dame continued to serve the children of St. Louis Academy for a total of 67 years until June 1977. A kindergarten program was started in 1979.
During the early 1980s, when conservation of energy was a concern, one third of the cafeteria was transformed into a chapel for daily Mass during the winter months. The large windows were removed, thermo-paned windows were installed and the front doors of the school were replaced.
The student body has remained small but steady through the 1980s and 1990s averaging around 70 students. The school has maintained a first-class accreditation and has a very active school board and Home and School Association continuing the strong tradition of parents playing a crucial role in the school’s vitality.
Several remarkable sisters and lay principals have served St. Louis Academy over the last century. Most special in the memory of the current parishioners is Agnes Hart whose music and energy filled the halls from 1987-2004. Cheryl Layton-Whitaker, Carolyn Kirkendall, and Cheryl Klinker also provided leadership in the new millennium.
The school houses interactive smart boards and technology in every classroom and 134 students in preschool through eighth grades with many full and part-time teachers.
Recent improvements include remodeling the former art room into a resource room, replacing the original slate roof with a new one of steel tile, adding a larger, covered back porch and new windows and doors. Efforts to remodel the former convent/parish office to include space for a science lab, art and music classes are in the near-future plans.
Former Pastor at St. Louis Besancon Parish, Father Stephen E. Colchin, has lovingly referred to St. Louis Academy as the parish gem. During his time at St. Louis, he spoke of his gratitude to the parish and its families: “For 100 years, this parish and its families have supported St. Louis Academy with their time, talent and treasure and made personal sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic school. We have much to be thankful for as the Lord has guided us over this past century, and we pray this same guidance will sustain us well into the future.”