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Students continue service of Ursuline founders of St. Mary's School in Moscow

By Carol Price Spurling

One hundred years after three Ursuline nuns founded the first Catholic school in the Palouse, its students and teachers still participate in the service-oriented philosophy of the Order of St. Ursula.

The school the nuns started in Moscow, Idaho, is still going strong with its academic, athletic and music programs.

Today, only the principal of St. Mary’s School, Sister Margaret Johnson, is an Ursuline nun. The teachers and staff are now lay people.

school shoes
Skyler Ting, backgrouond, and friend Aubrie
clean shoes.

“Service is something we’re obligated to do. It’s part of our Catholic identity,” explained Elizabeth McEvoy, fifth grade teacher and advisor to the student council. “It is our responsibility to help other people. Everybody can contribute to the greater good.”

Each class participates in service activities along with school-wide and student-council projects.

First graders, for example, collect gloves, hats and scarves to give to needy families.

Second graders hold a bake sale to raise funds to purchase livestock for families in developing countries through Heifer International.

“The cool thing about Heifer International is that the people who get the animals give the offspring back to Heifer so they can be given to someone else,” said Skyler Ting, student body president last year.

Third graders help clean “D” Street and Hordemann’s pond area in Moscow.

The school often has fund raisers for the local food bank.

With proceeds from a Valentine’s Day raffle, students bought items the food bank requested: $100 worth of Hamburger Helper and $100 worth of spaghetti sauce.

They set the items on a counter so the students could see: “This is what you did. It will feed x number of families for x number of weeks,” Elizabeth said. “It makes more of an impact on younger children to see the connection between their raffle ticket purchases and needs of the local community.”

Last year the student council decided to collect shoes and send them to a place in Honduras where nobody had shoes, Skyler said.

Over two months, student council members and other students worked to clean 300 shoes during lunchtime recesses. 

That gave the children and adults in Honduras the opportunity to choose from different sizes and types of shoes.

Student council members also met one day a week after school to make Christmas tree decorations that they sold after the Masses on Sundays at St. Mary’s Church. They used the proceeds to purchase Christmas gifts for the local Giving Tree project.

Sixth graders went to the food bank and helped take in and organize food.

“It was really big, but we learned that they usually run out of food,” Skyler said. “I was also surprised that there are so many people in our area that need help.”

Elizabeth said it’s important that the students don’t just go home and say, “Mom, I need two bucks for the bake sale.”

Instead, she said they do something or give something up to come up with the funds to help people.

“When they bake a dozen cookies, there is a little bit of them in the project,” she said.

Despite that reward, Elizabeth said “it’s not about the feel-good part of it, but it’s about doing something for somebody else.”

That was the spirit of Mother Mary Rose Galvin, and Sisters Paula Slevins and Mary Carmel McCabe when they arrived on Sept. 5, 1908, at the train depot in Moscow.  Parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the new school trustees and non-Catholic supporters gave the nuns $1,000 with which to open their new Ursuline Academy.

They’d had a “tedious” five-day journey west from Ohio, but they came willingly at the request of Bishop Glorieux of the Boise diocese.

A large, empty farmhouse at the northern edge of town at D and Howard Streets awaited them.  The church rented it for $25 per month.

The nuns opened the Ursuline Academy soon after their arrival. Boarding students came to the school within a couple of days to join day students.  Enrollment increased steadily.  By the end of the first year, there were about 60 pupils.

Within a month of their arrival, they transformed the farmhouse into a convent and a school, where faith guided every lesson as it does today.

By 1957, the Ursuline Academy outgrew the farmhouse and Catholic education continued in a new brick building, built next door on Monroe St. in the summer of 1956.

In September 2008, a large crowd of the school’s alumni and supporters gathered near that spot, no longer on the outskirts of town, to celebrate a century of Catholic education on the Palouse.

The crowd also celebrated the completion of a 15,000-square-foot, $1.9 million gymnasium and classroom addition to St. Mary’s school.

After decades of using an area about the size of two small St. Mary’s classrooms for a lunchroom, gymnasium, indoor recess room, assembly, music, band and all-purpose room, the school now has breathing room.

“The expectation for each student at St. Mary’s School and St. Rose’s Preschool is that the ‘3 R’s’ are practiced: respect, resourcefulness and responsibility,” said Sister Margaret who has been principal since 1995.

“We believe that a loving God has created each human person and that we are bonded with one another as brothers and sisters. Therefore, we have the right and responsibility to respect not only ourselves but also one another,” she explained.

“We each also have the responsibility to use the gifts we have been given to build the community around us,” she said. “Although I have rights, I also have the responsibility to serve others. It’s simple.  Each day, we focus on these and on God’s loving presence.”

Through the centuries, members of the Order of St. Ursula, founded by Angela Merici in 1535 in Italy, have served with compassion to “meet the needs of the times” in the communities where they have lived.

Soon after their foundation, the Ursuline sisters’ mission frequently led them to focus on education, especially for girls.

Today Ursuline sisters are on every continent except Antarctica, involved in ministries as psychologists, doctors, librarians, social justice workers, pastoral workers and teachers.

In the early 20th century, the school educated people who helped transform Moscow from a frontier village into a thriving, cultured university town.

With the church’s support, the Ursuline founders filled the need for parochial education in the region, serving Catholics and non-Catholics.

Now, there are 105 students in first through sixth grades at St. Mary’s, primarily from Moscow, but also from Pullman, Deary, Potlatch, Troy and other towns in the area. More than 15 percent come from non-Catholic homes.

St. Rose’s preschool and kindergarten, begun in the late 1940s, was one of the first preschools in Idaho.

Ursuline sisters still run it in the building built in 1962 on the site of the original farmhouse convent. It serves more than 50 students.

Several leaders in Moscow’s business community spoke of their education under the Ursuline sisters at St. Mary’s.

Tod Kiblen, the owner of 108-year-old Latah County Title, attended St. Mary’s along with his siblings in the 1950s. His four sons attended in the 1970s and 1980s. Now several of his grandchildren go to St. Mary’s, too.

A goof-off as a child, Tod said St. Mary’s instilled “character,” bringing out a desire to excel along with values of the golden rule of “treating other people like you want to be treated.”

Gerard Connelly, owner of Tri-State, was two grades behind Tod in one of the first classes in the 1956 building. His children have also attended St. Mary’s School.

For Gerald, values taught there came first, academics second.

“My passion for the school is based on the value system that was the first and last lesson of the day and that permeated every activity in the school day,” he said.

“The children are taught to love, respect and forgive all people including their fellow students, teachers and especially those who need it the most: the poor, the disabled, the elderly and enemies. The lesson St. Mary’s School teaches its students, first and foremost, is the need to be a good person.”

Gerald attributes his success in business and in life to his formative years at St. Mary’s.

“Along with my parents, St. Mary’s School was instrumental in providing a foundation for my faith,” he said.

Gerald believes that those called upon to provide leadership are effective if that leadership is grounded in faith in God.

For information, call 208-882-2121.