Changes ahead as Assumption Catholic School turns 100

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 18, 2013 

Assumption Catholic School has experienced highs and lows, and changes both large and small, during its first 100 years of existence.

Now, more change is in the offing as the only Catholic school in Whatcom County prepares to celebrate its centennial.

"What do we want to take from those 100 years?" asked Monica Des Jarlais, Assumption's principal. "What do we want to do to move forward?"

A likely near-term change, she said, is beginning the process of turning Assumption into a bilingual school, in which all students would master both English and Spanish and classroom instruction would be taught in both languages.

Assumption already is taking extra steps to attract more Hispanic students, with financial help for their families and special learning programs for the youngsters.

"We are intentionally seeking our Hispanic students so they can better themselves," Des Jarlais said. "I'm very proud of that fact, that we are doing what we've been called to do."

SCHOOL OPENED 1913

For a school actively pursuing innovation, Assumption was steeped in tradition when it began a century ago.

The original three-story brick school building still stands at 2116 Cornwall Ave. The school, built on what was then the edge of town, had a convent behind it to house Dominican nuns from Tacoma who agreed to move north to staff the new school.

The school opened for business Sept. 2, 1913, with 132 students. The first graduation ceremony the following June saw nine students receive their eighth-grade diplomas.

Parish families contributed money to cover the school's construction costs. Students didn't have to pay tuition because the nuns weren't paid for their teaching and administrative duties.

Early on, Assumption offered classes through high school, but enrollment in the upper grades didn't grow much, so high school classes ended after the 1930-31 school year.

A junior high program arose in the early '50s, but that ended in 1967 when local public schools switched to a middle-school format.

In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council brought major changes to the Roman Catholic Church, with game-changing implications for Catholic schools, Assumption included.

As fewer women entered convents, schools hired more lay teachers and began charging tuition to cover their higher operating costs, said Joe St. Hilaire of Bellingham, who had six children attend Assumption and wrote a history book for the 1989 centennial of Assumption Catholic Church.

In the early '70s, the Dominican nuns sought greater say in their work at the Bellingham school and church, but no agreement was reached and the sisters withdrew from Assumption. The last religious teacher at Assumption departed in 1983, according to Hilaire's history.

However religion remains a part of student life, with daily prayers and religious instruction in the classroom. Students also attend Mass each week and for Catholic holy days.

MORE CHANGES

In recent decades the school has added preschool and kindergarten classes, installed computer labs, established an endowment fund and added a wing to the original building.

Inside, cultural and demographic changes continue. Twenty-five percent of the school's 230 or so students are now Hispanic, and there are a goodly number of children of non-white descent, including Chinese and Vietnamese.

Assumption recently won a national award for its garden project, in which students learn about healthy food and also raise money for a sister school in Cambodia by selling the fresh produce to parishioners.

"We believe in us becoming global citizens," Des Jarlais said.

Tuition remains formidable, starting at $6,542 per child for out-of-parish families and $4,973 for in-parish. But campaigns to provide financial aid are ongoing and will be a focus of future effort, Des Jarlais said. Also in the works are more community outreach, and a more sophisticated campaign to let people know about the content and value of an education at Assumption.

"We want to be a school that is meeting the needs of Bellingham," Des Jarlais said. "We need to do a better job in telling that story."

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS

Several events are planned to mark the 100th anniversary of Assumption Catholic School, 2116 Cornwall Ave.:

Sept. 20:

- Reception for alumni and friends, 7 to 9 p.m., Assumption gym.

Sept. 21:

- Back-to-school tours and barbecue lunch: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

- Mass with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain: 4 p.m., Assumption Catholic Church.

- Gala celebration with dinner and dancing: 6 p.m. cocktails, 7 p.m. seating, Silver Reef Event Center.

Sept. 22:

- Pancake breakfast: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Assumption gym.

Event prices and reservations: 360-733-6133.

ASSUMPTION SCHOOL


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Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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