Catholic Education in the Ironwood Area
By Reverend Darryl J. Pepin
The Rev. John Hennessy established the first Catholic Church, Saint Ambrose, in Ironwood in 1886. Ironwood was a small village at that time, but it was growing fast because the natural resources of the area, iron and timber, were starting to become in demand. Mass was first said in a small schoolhouse that was replaced with a small church. Several priests served the parish in these early years. But, 1890 when Father Martin Kehoe arrived he had been influenced by the bishop to have thoughts of starting school in Ironwood. Fr. Kehoe had already erected a school in Norway, Michigan and this was an experience he was to repeat in Ironwood.
By the end of 1892, Fr. Kehoe has enlisted the aid of the timber men and miners to help build a school. It was built on five lots on East Ayer Street, just a short distance from the "downtown" area and up the street from St. Ambrose Church. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish fraternal society) was very instrumental in seeing that school built. For teachers, Fr. Kehoe turned to the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc, Wisconsin to come and staff his new school. The superior general of the order of sisters did not have any sisters readily available to fill his request at mid-year. So, she set about bestowing the sisterhood on four young women who were near the end of their formation at the motherhouse so that sisters could be sent mid-year to Ironwood.
The early years were difficult. Not only with the territory being rather in a pioneer state, but the building was not completed yet! Work was still progressing on the school and it lacked furnishings suitable for classrooms. The sisters did arrive here in December and set about clearing the shavings and sawdust to get the school ready for opening in January of 1893. Classes started at the grade school level and four more sisters, removed from other schools, joined the four newly professed and the teaching faculty in the first year numbered eight sisters. The enrollment increased so much after the first month of school that another sister was added to the staff at that time.
The following summer, a financial panic hit the little town of Ironwood and Fr. Kehoe feared that the sisters would not be able to return since there was no money to pay them. But the sisters were content to stay in Ironwood provided the people of parish and school provided them with sufficient food. And so, the sisters continued their work. They actually lived in school! The occupied four rooms on the first floor and two rooms on the second floor.
The following year, 1894, saw the addition of a high school department. There was a demand for this, as many students' families desired their children gain a high school education. The first high school graduation was held in 1897 with entire class of two students: Julia Costin and Sophie Leichner. The ethnic background of 90% of those early students was Irish, and thus the reason why the St. Ambrose School got the name "Fighting Irish."
In 1901 and in 1904 work was done to add to the size of the school to accommodate more and more students. With more students, the need for more teachers arose and so the good sister sent even more teaching sisters to Ironwood.
The sisters who staffed the school were well educated and had advanced degrees for the subjects the taught. As a result, the education the students received was of the highest quality. Not only was the school expanding, and the education excellent, it was also felt that the school needed to be recognized. In the fall of 1913, steps were taken to have the school accredited in order to make it a permanent high school. And so, in that year the University of Michigan and the Catholic University of America accredited the school as an institution of fine learning and academics. St. Ambrose was the first high school in western Upper Peninsula to attain this honor!
The student body around that time numbered over 500 and was growing. The number of teaching sisters was at 18. As a result, more space was needed for both students and sisters. To take care of this demand, a former public school, the Ashland School, and a vocational building, the Froebel Building, were rented and finally, purchased in the mid 20's, to house the elementary and middle school students. For a short time in between, some of the elementary students attended classes in the former St. Michael's school, which had closed a few years previously.
Between 1910 and 1927, athletics became a part of the high schoolers' life. Football and basketball were the two main offerings. The name of the team at that time was changed to the "Ramblers."
In the ensuing years, the high school curriculum was expanded. Students were offered a variety of academic and "commercial" courses. Course offerings included subjects such as advanced mathematics, biology, chemistry, public speaking, chorus, orchestra, home economics, art, history, ethics, and of course, Latin. An interesting note is that Sister Mary Aquinas, who was on the faculty of St. Ambrose High School, learned how to fly a plane so she could teach aeronautics. She was the original "flying nun!"
In 1951, the original school building on Ayer Street nearly burned down. A couple of sisters, who for some reason did not attend daily Mass that morning, discovered the fire and called the fire department and the school was saved. During repairs, some of the sisters slept on the floor of the biology lab.
In 1954, when Monsignor Joseph Seifert was pastor of St. Ambrose Parish, it was decided to build a new elementary school building. The other buildings were older and in need of repair, so a new grade school was planned. Six houses and lots to the south of the church and rectory were purchase and the land cleared.
By January of 1957, the new grade school was complete and ready to be occupied. So, grades one through sixth from the Ashland School and grades seven and eight from the high school building were moved into the new school on Marquette Street.
In 1961, a new convent was built for the sisters on Mansfield Street, behind St. Ambrose Church and just a half a block away from the high school. The sisters now had separate bedrooms and the new convent was more spacious and comfortable than the former rooms they occupied in the school building.
Stories are told of how the St. Ambrose High School building in its later years was in a sad state. It was said that the students who sat in the desks near the windows could feel snow seeping through the window during the winter. And how, when the wind blew, one could feel the building sway ever so slightly. There are also tales of singing radiators and hilly floors. Students were also not allowed to all go up the stairs at once for fear they might break. The sisters also complained how they would need extra blankets on their beds in the winter since the building was old and drafty. But the Manitowoc Franciscan sisters continued to send well-qualified sisters to teach and staff the school and the school continued to provide an excellent academic education to all who entered its doors.
It was in 1965, that St. Ambrose High School was re-accredited by the Catholic University of America. For 52 years, the high school was a member of an elite group of only 33 schools in the nation! This is a testament to the wonderful sisters who made up the teaching staff of the high school.
Since its inception in 1883, St. Ambrose High School was under the care and financial support of St. Ambrose Parish. In 1965, the three local parishes joined together to continue to support the high school so that quality Catholic education would continue in the Gogebic Range area. The name of the high school was changed to Ironwood Catholic High School. The name change recognized that the school was now being supported and funded by the entire Ironwood Catholic community. The reason for this change was a declining number of students. This was the result of the area mines starting to close and a population that started dwindling.
In 1970, the high school and St. Ambrose Grade School and St. Michael's/Holy Trinity Grade School merged into one school system. It was governed by a lay board of education and included the pastors and two lay representatives from the three Ironwood parishes. The name of the grade school mirrored the name of the high school, Ironwood Catholic Grade School.
With the original high school building deteriorating and the student body numbers falling, a decision was made to move all the grade school students into the St. Michael/Holy Trinity School building on Arch Street which would leave the school building on Marquette Street available for use as a high school. So, on September 4, 1968, with an enrollment of 111 students, Ironwood Catholic High School opened in its new quarters at 106 South Marquette Street. The 75-year-old structure on Ayer Street was still used. It housed some classes - physics, typing, clothing and language classes. It was also during that time, some students were involved in shared-time programs with Luther Wright Public High School and Gogebic Community College.
Along with moving the high school programs to the Marquette Street building, plans were made to add a gymnasium to the building. This would allow for physical education classes as well as sport events such a basketball and volleyball. The gym was completed and ready for use for the 1968-69 basketball season.
In 1970, all classes were moved to the Marquette Street School leaving the 78-year-old original school building standing as monument to a glowing past. Sadly, it was demolished the following year, 1971. Several additional classrooms were needed during this time and so a portion of the Church basement was converted into two classrooms.
With the mines closing and a lack of gainful employment in the area, the population of Ironwood dwindled even more. With the population growing smaller, the enrollment also dropped. Trying to keep up with expenses when much of the income came from tuition also became a problem. Fund-raising efforts were started. A spaghetti feed each year on a weekend in late winter dubbed "LaRosa Weekend" was instituted in 1975. That name was given due to the generosity of the company that, at first, donated the spaghetti for the dinner. An Endowment Fund was also established along with Bingo and a calendar club raffle. The Home and School Association also took on fund-raising to assist with the school's expenses.
With a decline in the number of teaching sisters available, it was also necessary to hire lay teachers to round out the teaching staff. This also contributed to the rising costs of operating a parochial school. A ballot effort in the State of Michigan for a voucher system to provide funding for non-public schools also failed.
Sadly, with funding in short supply and rising costs, along with declining enrollment, Ironwood Catholic High School had to bravely face the facts. All of the other Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Marquette had closed. It was the last standing Catholic high school in the entire Upper Peninsula. And so, at the end of 1986, after a glorious and magnificent history, Catholic high school education ceased in Ironwood.
The grade school, however, continued on. With the consolidation of the three Ironwood parishes in summer of 1986, the grade school program moved back to the Marquette Street school and was renamed Our Lady of Peace Catholic Grade School. The Arch Street School was sold to a private company that renovated the building into apartments.
The number of teaching sisters continued to decrease. In 1997, a lay principal was hired to replace the last principal who was a sister. In 1997, there were three Franciscan sisters left in Ironwood. Only one of the three was teaching part-time in the school. In 1998, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity left Ironwood for good. It was a sad day for the sisters, for Ironwood and for the Catholic education that had flourished so beautifully under their direction and guidance.
In 2003, an effort was made to consolidate the struggling grade schools of St. Sebastian in Bessemer and Our Lady of Peace in Ironwood. It was financially unfeasible to operate two school buildings and so a study committee sent by the diocese recommended use of the Our Lady of Peace Building over the St. Sebastian building.
Since a new school entity was to be the result of the consolidation, a new name was chosen along with new school colors and a new school "mascot." The name "All Saints Catholic Academy" along with the school colors of red and white was chosen from suggestions of the students. The school's mascot, the Paschal Lamb, was also at the suggestion of the students.
While all the signs were at first positive for the consolidation effort, the end product was that the consolidation did not take effect. With the decision of the bishop to house the consolidated school in the Ironwood building, the people of Bessemer chose not to send their children. So, after a year of funding by both St. Sebastian and Our Lady of Peace Parishes, the school returned under the sole support and funding of Our Lady of Peace Parish for the 2005-2006 school year. It was hoped that the two parishes could sustain and keep alive the long history and tradition of excellent Catholic education on the Gogebic Range. As it stands now, with the ever-declining area population, lack of employment and job, along with a smaller enrollment and increasing operating costs, the future of the school seems tenuous. But, with the help of God and the continued support and prayers of many good people, the school will continue to do its very best for as long as it can.
In 2006, Alexander K. Sample, a priest of the Diocese of Marquette, became the thirteenth bishop of this diocese. One of his first acts as bishop was to create a task force to study the nine struggling Catholic grade schools in the Upper Peninsula. One of the key elements that prompted this study was the financial woes of most of these schools. So a very bright note for the future of the school came when, as of the 2007-2008 academic year, the diocese added a "school assessment" to each parish and mission Upper Peninsula Catholic Services Appeal goal. Monies gained from this assessment would be divided between the nine schools. In addition to the assessment, a diocesan-wide collection would be taken up on Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent. This money too, would be divided amongst the nine schools. Bolstering the finances of the schools, along with other elements of the Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Marquette, hopefully ensures a brighter future for All Saints Catholic Academy.
For the 2007-2008 school year the enrollment was 82 students. This is the highest number of students since the 1998-1999 school year. It is hoped with the bishop's strategic plan in place, the future of All Saints Catholic Academy will be long and bright into the future.