From Meeker County Church Listing
821 E. 5th St. St. Phillip's Church (#17)
In 1871, the Diocese in St, Paul assigned the first resident priest to Meeker County. Father Arthur Hurley resided in Litchfield and served Forest City and Greenleaf. A house was purchased in Litchfield and one room was used as a chapel for daily mass. Then in May 1882 the parish of St. Phillip's was officially recognized. A wooden church was built on the corner of 3rd St. and Holcombe Ave. It was dedicated by Bishop John Ireland on October 7, 1883. Unfortunately, this was destroyed by fire in 1921. It was replaced with a brick church in 1921.
In 2005, the new St. Phillip's Church and fellowship hall were built on East 5th Street adjacent to the cemetery. All of the stained glass windows have been placed in the new church. There are a few in the church proper and some along the walk way which leads into the parish offices. In 2015 offices were added on the Church.
Calvary Cemetery is adjacent to church on East 5th Street. In 2009 the way of the cross was added to the cemetery using the stations from the old church. Each station has been enclosed in a cement case with glass for viewing and was donated by parishioners.
225 East 3rd St. St. Phillip's School (#20)
In 1935, St. Phillip's opened a catechetical school and music conservatory across Holcombe Avenue in the O.H. Campbell home in 1932. This was the forerunner of St. Phillip's School and was staffed by the Sisters of St. Benedict from the Convent in St. Joseph, MN. The parish school was built in 1953 and it opened in the fall of 1954. The Sisters of St. Benedict partially staffed the school until 1979; now staff is all lay persons. The school is now pre-school to grade 5.
The Changing Face of the School of St. Philip
February 25, 2018
EDLD 919 ~ Dr. Preskill
“Bless, O Lord, this edifice, and let there be here health and holiness, virtue and glory, humility, goodness, mildness, gentleness, docility, and fidelity to the law, obedience and thanksgiving to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
From Dedication of St. Philip’s School Souvenir Book (1954)
Part I: Where it All Began
Long before there was a School of St. Philip, there was a Church St. Philip, and before that there was the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and so on. The history of the school and the church are closely entwined with a common mission and a commitment to the values mentioned in the opening statement. The school began with a faith in God and a desire to see that faith grow. A church, a people, came together to build a facility and they have continued to watch it grow and flourish, at times struggle, and ultimately continue to this day.
The school was the vision of many for 72 years following the establishment of the church in the late 1800s. The churches in the local villages of Darwin and Forest city were the first to organize and build churches, but upon hearing the motivating words of Bishop John Ireland in 1880, Fr. John McDermott set about organizing the building of the first Catholic church in Litchfield. The history of parish growth and dynamic pastors maintained a hopeful spirit in establishing a Catholic school, but until 1935, consensus declared it was not yet the right time.
Father Charles Doran was appointed pastor of the Church of St. Philip in 1932 and by 1935 he progressed the building plans—with baby steps. The church purchased the property across the street, a large “castle-style” home to be used as a convent for the Sisters of St. Benedict from St. Paul’s Priory in St. Paul, who had been invited to teach music and catechism for the parish.
In 1947 the Archbishop pleaded for more Catholic schools and the Litchfield community, under the leadership of Fr. Doran, decided that the appropriate time had arrived. A committee of volunteers visited every parishioner in their home to solicit donations toward the cause. The estimated costs were approved at nearly $200,000 for an 8-classroom facility. St. Philip’s placed the cornerstone in May of 1953, dedicated the school on the Feast of St. Philip in May of 1954, and welcomed its first students in the fall of 1954.
Don Kienetzko was a member of the first eighth grade graduating class of St. Philip School. Prior to the establishment of the school, Don attended a country school just west of town for grades 1-5, with just 3 other students in his grade. His parents were Catholic, and simply put, that meant when there was a Catholic school, parents made that choice for their children. He set forth to enter sixth grade in the fall of 1954 thinking he would be out of place, a “country bumpkin” amid the “city slickers.” He found that the transition was surprisingly smooth, though, and that the he easily settled into the routine of work and prayer under the direction of the Benedictine sisters.
As is typical in new school establishment, many of the classes were multi-age, with Don joining a fifth and sixth grade multi-age class that fall. His father drove him to and from school between doing morning chores and milking, which meant Don and his twin sister were late for Mass each day. He recalls these days fondly and how these “missed Masses” were somehow made up by the extra ones when the students became the choir for funerals, singing the traditional Latin hymns. During those days students enjoyed recess, learned the basics with no formal music or Physical Education classes, and respected the deep faith and manner of the Sisters. With multiage rooms of 30-40 students, respect for teacher authority was important. Prayer and religious instruction were high priorities for the new school.
Don reports that there was little division on the playground at recess, and if bullying behaviors came up the Sisters dealt with it. He recalled a time when a pair of girls, the underdogs of the class, were getting harassed in some way. Sister Margaret Claire, both their teacher and the principal, sent the girls on an errand up town so she could give the class a private talking-to. Goodness and kindness were ongoing expectations.
Classes comprised more children in those early days for a variety of reasons. Families of 10-12 children were the norm, not the exception they are today. The Church fully subsidized the school, so tuition expenses were not the issue they have become in recent years, making Catholic education seemingly prohibitive for some families. Enrollment reached a high in 1959 with 252 students in first through eighth grade.
Sister Mary Lou Dummer shared with me about the era of the late 1960s and 1970s. This was what she called a “heyday” time in the school’s history with a population just above 100 and a real family feel. The entire school community gathered each morning for prayer together in assembly room, a way to reinforce values and focus each day on faith. There was a genuine feeling of community among the staff with Fr. McGown entertaining on a regular basis. He was a supportive leader, and Sister Mary Lou recalls that as a young and inexperienced principal, she learned a lot from him. Fr. McGown developed strong relationships with the other ministers in the community, often taking part in ecumenical prayer. He set the foundation for ecumenism, but during this time, the population of the school remained completely Catholic. While the population was nearly three times the size just 20 years earlier, this environment was what Sister Mary Lou called “one of the best assignments of (her) career. We were close. And happy.”
Enrollment Trends over the Years
Time brought change which included more lay people serving as teachers and administrators, non-Catholic students joining the community, and smaller families. The fall of 1980 marked the beginning of lay people serving on staff. And while this transition from religious staff to lay staff was a gradual shift, the impact was felt by the community—perhaps largely financially. The parish provided the Sisters a home to live in across the street from the church and school, so salaries were minimal in the early days. When the time came to pay lay teachers, we saw a marked drop in enrollment at the School of St. Philip. Where Don Koneitzko’s parents were offered free education in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s saw tuition grow and the population drop. This was coupled with smaller family size and good programing in the public schools, according to Sister Mary Lou.
Nancy McGraw grew up in the 1970s and graduated from St. Philip’s, Mary Lenz was one of her teachers, and today they are on staff together. They recall both the joys and struggles of the 1990s and 2000s with many staff changes, varied student enrollment, and the changes brought when the new church was built 6 blocks away and the old one onsite demolished. Their classrooms were filled with excitement, and they recount wonderful stories of lost class pets, elaborate school musicals, and the joys of coaching the school basketball team.
Changes within the school district also led to change at the School of St. Philip. Declining enrollment led to the closing of seventh and eighth grade in 1970. In the fall of 1995 the district built a new school and transitioned from a K-8 education model to a middle school model. This greatly affected families of the School of St. Philip who wanted their children to transfer to middle school with the rest of their class, so it was decided to close our sixth grade and graduate our students in fifth grade. To prevent drastic enrollment change, we added an all-day every day kindergarten program that same fall, long before it became state mandated. In the fall of 2014 we then added a preschool class for four-year-olds, with a three-year-old class following in the fall of 2017.
Part II: The Story Behind the Story
There is always another version of history that sometimes we would rather sweep under the rug and choose to ignore. As in every institution, there is that kind of story at St. Philip’s too.
I am the eleventh principal in the school’s history, with some serving just two years, some serving a handful, and others even more. Current and past staff would speculate that the reason for this had much to do with gender bias. One female teacher reported that she was “furious” when it was discovered that the new male teacher was hired with a salary far above the female salaries of those already on staff because of his label “head of the household.” In another case two teachers were considered for the role of principal –one male and one female. The male was hired, though it was apparent to the staff at the time that the female was more qualified, and the female took another job to get out of Dodge. When the man decided to move on after a couple of years in administration, then the aforementioned woman was hired as our school principal. While this scenario is somewhat speculative, it fits with the era of gender discrimination.
Rules and policies were set seemingly arbitrarily with preference given to males and/or young teachers with the hope that they would stay with the school. Benefit packages changed for staff and things like paid maternity leave were accepted in the 2000s where prior to this time teachers could not even use sick time for the birth of a child or for bereavement leave. And whether gender related or not, priests were considered the rule-makers--by themselves as well as by the community. They held the final authority with their power and control visible to all.
Race and Ethnicity
Sister Mary Lou, reflecting on her time in the late 1960s and 1970s, could not recall a single student of diverse cultural background. Mary Lenz and Nancy McGraw, teachers from the 1980s to the present recall some families coming and going over the years, but the school has largely lacked ethnic diversity since its inception. The community in which the School of St. Philip is located has a migratory population that has been a part of the school in a minimal sense over the years, and it is my hope to put structures in place to change that. Over the last 20 to 30 years there have been Hispanic families that joined the community for a time, but while the Anglo-Americans have remained staunch supporters with deep familial roots in the school, that has not been the case with the immigrant families.
Our pastor Fr. Joe Steinbeisser has indicated that economics play a major role for Mexican American families today. Culturally they are unaccustomed to paying for education, so paying tuition is a tough sell for families. Their experience in Mexico does not include preschool; for Mexican Americans, school begins with kindergarten—not preschool-- and it is free.
That being said, after many years with little or no Hispanic representation, 13% of our current families have Mexican background. I have asked myself time and again what conditions have been in place within the school that failed to foster openness to diverse cultures. For many years language has been a major barrier, but we are beginning to see second generation students enter our schools, so this barrier is being broken. There are still miles to go.
Socioeconomics and Class
Socioeconomic status is often a defining feature of parochial education. That is more true today than perhaps it was 64 years ago. In the early days of St. Philip School, the Benedictine Order provided a handful of nuns who served as teachers and administrators. The cost of education was minimal at that time with no expense to the parents. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students had a place in the Catholic school. The parish completely subsidized the school. Families did what they could do support the church financially, and that support ultimately trickled down to the children through the school.
Tuition became a necessity when the school became completely staffed by lay people in 1980, and it has grown steadily over the years to allow for equitable salaries and high-quality materials. Gone are the days of free education and completely parish-subsidized support. In 2015 we began a scholarship fundraiser focused specifically on increasing funds to help families in need, but there are still many families who attest, “I just cannot afford a Catholic school.”
The commitment to the Church and to following her teachings has remained the same. The values and traditions begun by the Benedictines have remained the same. The old brick building looks remarkably the same. But 64 years after the School of St. Philip was begun, we are not the same. We are smaller, we are more technologically advanced, we are more diverse, we are more ecumenical, we are more equitable. We still have miles to go and imperfections to face, but our mission to bring faith and life to this community will continue for many generations.
Dummer, M. (2018, February 19). Phone interview.
Koneitzko, D. (2018, February 14). Personal interview.
Lenz, M. (2018, February 20). Personal interview
McGraw, N. (2018, February 20). Personal interview.
Quinn, Rev. J., Casey, P. J., McCann, Foss (1954) Dedication of st. philip’s school: may 1, 1954.
Unknown Author (2004, September 30). St. philip’s: maintains a strong christian atmosphere
that is taught and lived. Litchfield Independent Review, pp. 1B and 5B.