Built on faith

Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s February 2017 issue. Never miss an issue, check out SFM’s digital editions, here

Article and Photos by Brooke Wagner

In an interview several years ago, Pope Francis remarked, "Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God." The Billings Catholic School System must have dusted off their gardening gloves, as they are preparing to launch an enormous space where much growth is certain to bloom. The brand new Saint Francis K8 School on Colton Boulevard just north of Rose Park is set to open in August of 2017. After years of classrooms at full capacity with less-than-ideal outdoor spaces and building amenities, school staff, students, and families are equally thrilled to be moving into the new building that was, as they say, "Built on faith!”

Billings Catholic Schools were established in 1911 when 8 Sisters of Charity traveled to Billings from Leavenworth, Kansas. Their main purpose was to make Catholic education accessible to the growing community. The first school building was named St. Patrick's Grade School and met in the St. Joachim Church, now St. Patrick's Co-Cathedral. The school started with 37 students and has grown to over 900 today. In 1943, St. Patrick's High School (now Billings Central Catholic High School) was formed, and in 1947 the first graduating class consisted of 7 young ladies and 6 young men.

Much has changed since those early days, but one Billings family has a connection to Billings Catholic Schools that has stretched across generations. Mallory Harris attended BCS, just as her mother and grandmother did before her. Her grandmother was sent to Billings Catholic Schools because her parents thought she might make a good nun. She traveled from Deaver, Wyoming to live with relatives in Billings and attend BCS. While she never became a nun, she did make quite an impression on the students, and in 1947 became the first Prom Queen crowned by the school. Jared, Mallory's husband, is also a BCS graduate, and his mother taught in the Billings Catholic School system for 18 years. The couple's children now attend BCS, making them fourth generation students.

Mallory says the decision to send their children to Billings Catholic Schools was an easy one. One of the biggest benefits they have felt in their family is the foundation of faith that BCS provides. She says, "We love that our children are given the opportunity on a daily basis to talk about and express their belief in Christ." The close-knit, family atmosphere is also a big part of why they attend the school. Students are not only taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but core values such as integrity and respect are also reinforced with the academic skills. "The kids themselves are taught to take pride in all that they do, the buildings they have, and the people they meet. The same values are taught at school that we try to teach at home."

While this type of education may be appealing to many families in our community, there is a potential roadblock to pursuing this dream. The cost of a private school may seem out of reach to parents and students. Jan Haider, President of the Billings Catholic Schools Foundation, wants to educate our community about ways families can begin their own path to this brand of learning. "We have a tuition tier program that allows families to pay tuition based on their income. We also have many foundation scholarships that help students in need, and a tuition review committee that looks at individual cases to determine the amount of tuition relief that is available.” Jan says.

Billings Catholic schools are certainly making the grade in our community. As more and more families have realized the benefits of attendance at the school, classrooms have grown and resources have been stretched. Several classes even had waiting lists, and administrators were disheartened at the reality of having to turn away students and families who were eager for a place at the school.

Plans began many years ago in 1959 for expansion, when the schools acquired a tract of land off of Colton Boulevard and Woody Drive that stretched over 27 acres. After many years of patiently waiting and planning for what lay ahead for the schools, ground was broken last spring on a brand-new, state of the art school for the Billings Catholic community. Plans for the new school to open this fall have the entire community abuzz with excitement. Billings continues to grow, along with the need for educational environments that can serve children in the grade school years. The new building will serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and promises to consolidate the way the schools are currently dispersed throughout the community. Prior to the new building, Saint Francis (the elementary school arm of BCS) had three different locations including Saint Francis Primary on Custer Avenue, Saint Francis Intermediate on Yellowstone Avenue, and Saint Francis Upper downtown on North 32nd Street.

The long-term goal is for the entire Catholic school campus to be linked together on the Colton Boulevard property. But for now, the focus is on what the new elementary school will bring to the community as a whole. Jan says, "This new building will give us significant growth capacity. That means we will have room for every child who wants to attend." *Bubble quote? The building may be new, but the foundation and values of the Catholic schools will remain the same - "To provide an exceptional Catholic education that emphasizes formation in faith, spirit, academic excellence, and service, justice, and peace."  From childcare and preschool to a well-established K-12 education system, BCS currently serves nearly 1,000 students from Billings and beyond.

The thoughtful design by A&E Architects for the new Saint Francis building is sure to be evident to each student and visitor at the school. General contractors, Langlas & Associates, are bringing the design to life. Hallways are flooded with natural light from oversized windows and the stairways were designed to let the sun's ray’s stream in from above. A two-story atrium makes a grand first impression as guests walk into the front doors; if, that is, they can drag themselves away from the expansive grassy area stretching like a green carpet in front of the school. Cabinets in many classrooms are covered with a white marker board finish, giving teachers and students extra workspace to write and create. In addition, the sizeable gymnasium and music rooms will allow students to exercise their bodies and their voices as well as their brains.

Jan sites the strong community and multi-generational family commitment to the school as a large component of their fundraising success. At the time of the ground breaking for the new building, half of the funds needed for completion had already been raised. The school system is building on faith that the full amount needed (an ambitious 18 million dollars) will have been raised by the time the new school opens. Jan says, "As a career fundraiser, I have been in awe of the incredible support the Schools receive. The constituent base is amazing, made up of thoughtful, generous, remarkable people. Each donor has a reason why they give to the schools. I am honored and privileged to have been a part of this."

Mallory Harris echoes this sentiment. She reflects, "When we graduated from the Billings Catholic School systems, if people would have told us our children would be friends with the children of parents we went to school with, we probably would have never believed them. But, that is how it happened!" She says the value these long-term family relationships have had to them personally is difficult to put into words. "We know and trust the families, and we take care of the kids as a community." The second, third, and even fourth generations within the BCS system attest to the fact that what is happening there goes far beyond the classroom. With smaller classroom sizes and students who are typically together for twelve years at a stretch, bonds are made and relationships formed over countless cafeteria lunches, algebraic equations, and games of tag on the playground.

The Harris family continues to be a visible part of the BCS community. Matteo is in 2nd grade and Arabella attends preschool there. Youngest son Rocco is soon to be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, one day walking the same path his mother, father, grandmother, and great-grandmother walked. Mallory says, "Our families have had a long history with the Billings Catholic Schools and have nothing but great memories throughout."  When asked if there might be any interesting tales from her family’s' many years at BCS she might be willing to share, however, Mallory chooses to save those stories for another time. "There are so many great memories! There has been an escapade or two in every generation, but they are better left unpublished! If you would like to hear one, grab us at the next BCS Ram's sporting event."  Wise words from a student whose place is well earned in the pages of Billings Catholic Schools' history books.

about the author...Brooke Wagner is a Southern girl at heart, but a Montana girl by choice.   She lives in Billings with her husband, three children, one dog who thinks she is human, and one very therapeutic horse.