Excellence aside, Bethlehem Academy celebrates 150 years of shaping souls

| June 4, 2015 | 0 Comments

From left, teacher Brent Zubel helps juniors Joe Beckmann, Alex Dunn and Emily Crone with a project in Bethlehem Academy’s introduction to engineering class. They are setting up an anatomical model to understand bloodflow to and from the heart as part of their engineering curriculum. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The oldest Catholic school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is gearing up for its 150th anniversary, remembering its humble start as a Dominican school and celebrating academic successes as well as students and faculty guided by their rich tradition of putting others first.

With a “Family Reunion” theme, events for the yearlong celebration will kick off Aug. 7-9, surrounding the feast of St. Dominic, celebrated Aug. 8.

A progressive past

What started as an all-girls academy on July 31, 1865, with just a small house, a cow and a piano, flourished into the sixth- through 12th-grade Catholic school in the heart of Faribault.

The structure, animal and instrument were all that the five Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters had to start Bethlehem Academy, said Tom Donlon, the school’s president and principal.

Bishop Thomas Grace of St. Paul had received word from Father George Keller, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Faribault, that a mother’s dying wish was for her daughter to receive a Catholic education like her son. As a Dominican himself, Bishop Grace contacted Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, founder of the congregation of Dominican Sisters based in Wisconsin, to have them start a school to fulfill Catherine Murphy’s request.

Bishop Grace sent the right man, as Father Mazzuchelli developed a rigorous curriculum for girls.

“It wasn’t meant to be a finishing school, per se. It was really meant to be a school leading in the sciences and mathematics,” Donlon said.

Coming from a large wealthy family in Milan, Italy, Father Mazzuchelli was known for his support of women’s education. Donlon said there’s one account of Father Mazzuchelli receiving a letter from some religious sisters saying that instead of teaching, they were serving priests. So he picked them up on a carriage and brought them to Benton, Wisconsin, where they could better use their skills. Each fall, Bethlehem Academy celebrates Founder’s Day, embracing not only Father Mazzuchelli’s dedication, but also his practice of daily prayer.

Although lay instructors began teaching at the school in the 1960s, three Sinsinawa Sisters remain on Bethlehem Academy’s staff. Donlon said the school’s connection to the community is strong; seniors go on retreat to the mother house in Wisconsin, and the order retains its governance structure over the school.

The Bethlehem Academy class of 1885, 20 years after its founding. Photo courtesy Bethlehem Academy

The Bethlehem Academy class of 1885, 20 years after its founding. Photo courtesy Bethlehem Academy

Contemplative charism

Donlon said four pillars guide the school community in “Catholicity” and the Dominican charism: prayer/contemplation, preaching/service, community and study. Students in theology class spend 20 minutes a day in a eucharistic adoration chapel.

“We don’t know who we are until we spend time in front of Christ to learn who we are,” Donlon said, adding that weekly Mass and regular opportunities for reconciliation are experiences that form the community. “The participation in that sacramental life is our lifeblood.”

Current sophomore Breanna DeGrood said it’s her time in the adoration chapel when she feels most at peace during an otherwise hectic school day. She said what’s great about Bethlehem Academy’s student body is its acceptance and welcoming of new students.

“We’re open to new people and love seeing people from other cultures, because we learn from them,” she said.

To create an authentic, impactful Catholic environment, Donlon said it’s essential that “Jesus Christ is the head of the school.”

“It’s easy for us as humans to put ourselves first,” he said. “But the most important part, which is that Dominican charism, is contemplation — taking time each day to contemplate God’s will; contemplating the spiritual, but also the mysteries of the world. All that inspiration is under truth. [The school is] such a great place to be. It’s just wanting others to share in it, and keeping it financially affordable.”

Feeding the brain, nourishing the soul

Tom Donlon

Tom Donlon

Now educating female and male students, Donlon said the school takes to heart Father Mazzuchelli’s approach to provide students with what will most shape them as individuals.

“The value and experience of being at BA forms your character as such that that’s the most important piece — where we can be involved in that part of your life and in the choices you make,” Donlon said. No matter what vocation students choose, they need a core foundation, he added.

Donlon said that while college preparatory schools rightly focus on academic excellence, sometimes students feel pressured to enter a four-year post-secondary school when really what would best suit them is a two-year program. That’s why Bethlehem Academy supports its students’ various needs and interests.

“Many jobs need well-developed, articulate, problem-solver abilities, which wouldn’t necessarily require fours years of school,” Donlon said.

Two years ago, after community members donated 3D printers to the school, teachers developed an engineering-focused program that parallels the technology with the industrial arts program. The school hired an industrial arts teacher to bring a renewed focus to the school’s industrial arts. In asking business owners what they need from students as part of the program, the school learned that equipment is secondary to the vision of an engineering program, so the business owners asked what the school wanted to teach. So the students were tasked with making a wind machine not only to generate electricity, but also to create a more efficient system and analyze the gamut of the process’ complexities.

Other cross-curricular learning and supplying each student with a laptop contributes to their success, Donlon said. “But the bigger part is that in a world under pressure and in a world where you need people making solid, core-Catholic, value-based decisions, that’s the difference. They would know that there’s something in the world that is a mission for them to complete, and that the mission is about others.”

All in a nameBishop Thomas Grace, the second bishop of the Diocese of St. Paul (serving 1859-1884), suggested the name Bethlehem Academy to the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters because, like the holy family, they were without a home, and would create one in Faribault.

“The importance of the holy family is very much part of the fabric of the school,” said Tom Donlon, president and principal of Bethlehem Academy. “And it’s not accidental that when you ask students or parents, or any stakeholder, about the Bethlehem Academy community, you’ll hear folks say it’s like a family, it’s home. And those references that have gone on for generations just connect people’s experience to the founding.”

Supporting students

Bernt Halvorson, a 2009 alum and the school’s industrial arts teacher, said he always wanted to come back to the school to teach.

“Going to school here really helped me realize how much teachers care,” he said. “And you don’t realize that until you’re gone . . . how much they were helping you.”

Donlon said that part of the graduation tradition is a Mary ceremony that students lead. In addition to honoring the Blessed Mother, seniors give daisies to people who’ve made a difference in their lives. A few weeks ago, the school graduated 38 students.

“For faculty, it’s so touching to know that you’ve made a difference in one person’s life. We forget that,” Donlon said.

Halvorson noted that he realized the significance of the school’s 150th anniversary as some nearby towns were celebrating 125th anniversaries.

“As a school marking its 150 years, it shows how big of a history we have, how much it’s grown,” Halvorson said. “And obviously people have loved it, or they wouldn’t have put forth effort or kept it alive as long as they have. It’s a vital part of Faribault and the Faribault history.”

BA_StJosephStatueSt. Joseph saves the day

Bethlehem Academy president and principal Tom Donlon said there were periods throughout the school’s 150-year history when it struggled. But one historical anecdote points to a savior who would become the Faribault school’s patron saint.

During a cold, harsh Minnesota winter in 1868, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters who operated the school had run out of firewood. Asking their mother superior what to do, she told them to take the students to the chapel to pray.

While praying, a man came to the door and asked where they’d like the firewood he brought. Grateful, they helped him unload a big wagon full of firewood, and he left. Because no one in the community knew of their need, and no one knew who the man was, the sisters said it was a visit from St. Joseph himself.

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