Maribeth Monroe addresses guests and alumni at the June 29 dedication of the Ashland Catholic schools’ wall mural accompanied by mural artist Sue Martinsen. A brief history was presented for each of the schools and cameos depicted. (Photo courtesy Ed Monroe)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Ashland artist Sue Martinsen did not know her idea for a Catholic School-themed mural would coincide with the departure of the religious order that served the school communities for more than 140 years.

Kathy Culligan is a friend of Martinsen’s and a graduate of St. Agnes Academy, the former name of Our Lady of the Lady Catholic School, and De Padua High School. She told the Catholic Herald when the artist showed her a sketch of her idea, “I knew it was going to be quite the adventure.”

With various murals on the west side of Ashland’s downtown district, Martinsen had been looking for a project for the east end. The suggestion was made to focus on the Catholic schools that had existed, merged and closed, and honor and remember those involved with the institutions.

Culligan assured Martinsen that she would easily find the sponsorships needed to complete the mural.

“I know De Paduans,” Culligan asserted. The graduates from the Catholic high school, which was open from 1929 until 1967, have maintained a special bond and strong support of educational institutions in Ashland.

Ric Johnson is the business manager for Our Lady of the Lake Parish and school. He commented, “The DePadua School alumnae have, for decades, kept the memory of the DePadua High School in Ashland alive. Between many yearly class reunions, monetary support of school capital improvement projects (like the school replacement windows and the church stained glass windows restoration project) and through their interest in the Ashland City historical Franciscan mural installation, the alumnae are strong, active and ongoing supporters of Our Lady of the Lake School and parish.

“And besides, they are just fun people. They have great stories to tell, wonderful Ashland history and they always enjoy gathering for their yearly reunions – keeping the history of this 140-year-old parish and school alive.”

The seed ideas for the mural started to germinate before anyone knew that the mural would be finished and dedicated to coincide with the region’s farewell to the Franciscans.

Culligan admitted still being “heartbroken” about the order leaving, “but I accept what is going to happen; my faith is stronger than the Franciscans or diocesans, so I can live through that.”

Once the departure and mural timelines were known, the idea of a celebratory alumni reunion and picnic was suggested and quickly took off. With the help of siblings Jeff and Mary Beth Muse, Culligan organized the event, which approximately 150 attended.

The reunion picnic was held after the mural dedication, which took place June 29 at the mural location, the west side of Super H Foods on East Main Street.

Culligan’s father has siblings who graduated from De Padua High School, and all of her siblings attended, with her youngest sister graduating from Ashland High School two years after De Padua closed. She said the De Padua building – which housed both the high school and St. Agnes Academy before the current school building was constructed – “was an icon for years.”

She remembers when they moved to the new building for middle school, “As a sixth-grader, walking across the street with my little pillowcase with books and things, going into the new school.”

“Wonderful memories,” she said, of her two years at Our Lady of the Lakes – the name after Holy Family Elementary School and St. Agnes Academy merged.

Culligan also remembers there being approximately 250 students in the high school at peak enrollment. Numbers dwindled and the high school couldn’t afford to keep its doors open; it closed in 1967.

She remembers the day the De Padua building was torn down as “one of the saddest.”

“It was hard for a lot of us. It was a great place,” she said.

Once those doors closed, memories lived on. Alumni and parishioners of the Ashland Catholic schools and church believe these memories will continue to hold fast again as the community begins another new chapter without the Franciscans.

The De Padua Mural will help maintain those memories.

Four schools are included in the mural – Holy Family, St. Agnes, De Padua and Our Lady of the Lake.

Individual portraits were made available to be commissioned. Culligan said that many classes combined funds to honor former teachers and nuns, both living and deceased; others were commissioned by family members in the area.

One in particular is Sr. Alicita, 91 years old and living in La Crosse, unable to attend the dedication due to health concerns. According to Culligan, she turned the school’s music program around and brought it to a very high level.

Culligan still visits her on occasion, and shared, “Her short-term memory is failing, but her memories of De Padua are as sharp as ever. We all love her dearly.”

Culligan embodies the spirit and support Johnson affirmed. Speaking with the Herald the week prior to the dedication and reunion, she was looking forward to the alumni gathering, eager for the chance to sing the school’s “rah rah red and white song” one more time.