One hundred and fifty years ago, students in downtown Harrisburg came to Catholic school for the first time in a humble, run down shack. There, the religious Sisters taught children who sat upon wooden benches underneath a leaky roof that dripped drops on their heads while they were taught the rudimentary foundations of the faith and the essentials of grammar school.
That year was 1873; the country was in the politically discontented midst of Reconstruction after the Civil War under the presidential leadership of war hero Ulysses S. Grant. The Diocese of Harrisburg’s first Bishop, Jeremiah Shanahan, had a vision of establishing Catholic education in Harrisburg under the shadow of the capitol dome. And it made no matter if the mornings were cold – the students and Sisters would huddle around the coal stove to learn and teach – the vision of Catholic education, however humble, in the old town portion of Harrisburg had begun to look forward.
This year, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8, almost exactly to the day when students first came downtown to learn, Bishop Timothy Senior blessed the newly completed Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School, located directly behind St. Patrick Cathedral in its Education Center. Bishop Ronald Gainer, Bishop Emeritus of Harrisburg, along with the student body, faculty, benefactors and political dignitaries, gathered in the adjacent school grounds to witness storied history, the present and the bright future that lies ahead for Harrisburg’s elementary aged students.
“Today is a happy day as we celebrate a dream fulfilled,” Father Joshua Brommer, pastor of the Cathedral Parish, told the several hundred gathered outside. “Yet if truth be told, for me the happiness today pales in comparison with Monday August 28 – two weeks ago – when for the first time the entire student body of Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School began this school year together gathered under one roof.”
For years, the student body had been separated, with younger grades at the Holy Family Campus on 25th Street in Harrisburg and the older students downtown. The new structure has been completed in multiple phases over recent years. It had to marry the old Shanahan center and the 1950s school structure with a newly constructed entrance connector that ensures security, accessibility for all students and a central area for the school’s offices. There now is ample space for all grades in its newly refurbished classrooms that are equipped with new computer technologies and STEM labs.
“The final result is that now everyone can be together under one roof. It is already amazing to see how the littlest of our learners look up to the middle school kids – and how many of our middle school students feel the responsibility of setting a good example,” said school principal Joy Bearley. “Being together in one building lets us share experiences — our students now have prayer partners; we all attend Mass together; we begin our mornings together in St. Joseph Hall; our Thanksgiving greetings project and Valentine treats will take on new meaning because our students will truly have opportunities to know all the other students. Even having our Pre-K and Kindergarten classes side-by-side is a blessing, there are many shared activities ahead for those children.”
“Like all Catholic schools, Harrisburg Catholic Elementary offers an enriching educational curriculum covering academics, socialization and spirituality. The difference for us, now, is that we can exhibit the family atmosphere we have all felt,” Bearley said. “Being together in one building may be something other schools have taken for granted, but at HCE, this is a true manifestation of a family mindset. Parents who enroll in our school know their children will have a solid education, but also a family support system, which has been made easier with us all coming together in one location.”
“Looking ahead, I see a growth in community and school relationships, more opportunities for families to have educational experiences here and additional spiritual connections made between parish and school,” she said. “With more space and with the support shown by the parish and community, there are so many relationships that can truly be cultivated, all of which are educational opportunities for the students of Harrisburg Catholic Elementary.”
The Shanahan Center once housed Bishop McDevitt High School (then known as Harrisburg Catholic High), and it, too, has been remodeled and now serves as a parish hall as well as a school cafeteria and multi-purpose room. This portion of the new education center also served hundreds of thousands of service men and women during World War II as a USO center. After the war it served the Harrisburg Capitol district as the Catholic Youth Organization building that gave space for basketball and swimming activities to city youth. A touch of the old remains for any sentimentalist who yearns for the fond old days of their childhood, as the existing basketball flooring can still be felt under the new flooring that covers the multi-purpose area.
“What a wonderful day this is for you and your school,” Bishop Senior said in his homily at Holy Mass at the Cathedral, celebrated prior to the blessing and dedication of the new education center. “God’s plan for your lives is unfolding for your life every day of school here. It was not easy for Mary to always understand God’s plan, and it will not be easy for you either, but this is where we come to discover what it is God plans for you. God does have a plan for you.”
Bishop Senior also addressed the faithful gathered at the dedication ceremony prior to blessing the entire facility. “What a great gift a Catholic school is…. It is a place our students can grow into the image of Christ. This school is where we come to get to know Jesus and the friend that he is to us…. We give thanks today – it is what this school is all about, giving thanks, and we give thanks for you, our students. I hope you have a wonderful school year in your new school.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness