Students from St. Francis Solanus Catholic School, Reserve, pose with the school's new bus. After nearly 20 years of fundraising, the school was able to purchase the vehicle last winter. (Submitted photo)

Students from St. Francis Solanus Catholic School, Reserve, pose with the school’s new bus. After nearly 20 years of fundraising, the school was able to purchase the vehicle last winter. (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

After nearly 20 years of donation drives and bingo nights, students at St. Francis Solanus Catholic School, Reserve, are riding in style — in a brand new bus.

School Sisters of St. Francis Sr. Felissa Zander, principal of St. Francis Solanus, has been leading the fundraising effort since 1996.

“As soon as we get a bus, we start saving up for the next one,” said Sr. Felissa, who joined the staff of the non-tuition school 54 years ago.

The bus was one of many needs for St. Francis, built in 1941 on the site of the original 1885 school. Both the school and mission serve the local Ojibwe community.

“It’s a pretty place. Beautiful spot,” Sr. Felissa said of the village, which is about 14 miles southeast of Hayward.

Fewer than 50 students attend St. Francis. Sr. Felissa and Sr. Maryrose Theobold, also a School Sister of St. Francis, run the school with the help of a small staff and volunteers. They are seeking to hire a teacher or teacher’s aide for the upcoming school year.

At the end of May, the sisters were varnishing floors, cleaning the building and getting ready to close up for the summer.

“It’s all volunteer,” she added. “We can’t afford to pay a janitor.”

Because the sisters are always soliciting donations to keep the school running and to pay for regular maintenance, funding larger projects, i.e., purchase of a bus, can take years.

Purchasing the bus and re-roofing the school, which is slated for this summer, are among the more expensive updates related to the school; the historic pipestone church has also required interior and exterior repairs in the past couple of years, which has taken the fundraising focus off the bus.

Inflation and rising prices presented additional obstacles.

In 1996, a new bus cost $40,000. But, as the school’s savings account increased, so, too, did the price tag. Eighteen years later, a 29-passenger bus set the school back $60,000.

Sr. Felissa often fielded phone calls from well-meaning folks who’d heard about used buses for sale, but she didn’t want to buy secondhand. The school can’t afford repair bills.

“A lot of times, you get stuck with someone else’s problems,” she explained. “We just kept wishing for brand new.”

She was also confident the new acquisition would be well cared for; she’s been told not to keep buses that are more than 11 years old, but so far that hasn’t been possible for the school. Still, their buses pass the annual inspection.

“Well, this got way beyond 11 years,” she said of the old 21-passenger vehicle. “We have two very good bus drivers who maintain our buses.”

Three major donors, all of whom wish to remain anonymous, contributed large sums to the project, Sr. Felissa noted. Students pitched in their quarters and dollars, and the faithful from the community, parish and diocese also sent money.

“We are grateful for all the people from other parishes,” she said. “They read it in the Catholic Herald.”

St. Francis has been hosting bingo on Saturday nights since 1986. The bus account was nearing its goal, but they were still $4,000 short, so they added Wednesday night bingo.

“Finally, finally, we had enough,” she said.

Sr. Felissa had been shopping around two Wisconsin bus companies — one in Wausau and the other in DeForest. Ultimately, the Wausau manufacturer was chosen because of its proximity.

The bus was delivered “spankin’ new,” in her words, on Dec. 5, 2014.

“Oh, it’s nice,” she said. “It rides so smooth. But we miss our old bus, because we just got attached to it.”

After all those years of wanting and waiting, “We’re all satisfied,” she said.

This goal accomplished, the sisters are turning their attention to the weather-beaten roof and, after that, the windows, which were installed in the 1980s.

“I just cleaned those yesterday,” she said. “I can tell – they need a repair job. There’s always something.”