Fr. John Anderson, alumnus of St. Mary’s School in New Richmond and current pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, is pictured with nieces, from left, Kenley and Gracie Cole, and the statue of Mary which has greeted those who enter the school building for as long as the priest can remember. Fr. Anderson represents the second generation of his mother’s family to attend the school; the Cole girls are the fourth. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Reflecting on questions she was presented regarding her experience as a Catholic school alumna and current teacher, Debbie Olson-Leckel of Spooner shared, “The church building has changed, teachers come and go, but the one thing that stays the same is my faith!”

“I can thank all my teachers and my parents/family for being great role models and examples for helping mold who I am today,” she added.

Olson-Leckel, a 1988 graduate from St. Francis de Sales School’s eighth grade, has taught at her alma mater since 2007. For many years, her classroom consisted of combined grades, but with enrollment increases in recent years, she now teaches only the second grade.

“My favorite thing growing up was going to church with my family, including my grandparents,” Olson-Leckel said and recalled sitting by her Nana. “I would sit by her and hold her soft hand.”

Now Olson-Leckel sits near her students at weekly Mass and treasures witnessing them make the transition from receiving a blessing to receiving the body and blood of Jesus in communion.

At weekend Masses, Olson-Leckel still sees teachers from years past. From many of these “dedicated Catholics,” she also learned to love the rosary and the stations of the cross, prayers which have been continuously prayed generation to generation.

Olson-Leckel is also a school parent of two St. Francis de Sales students – in fourth and seventh grades. Her mother attended an all-girls Catholic school in the Chicago area. All four of her children – Debbie and her siblings Dave, Dana and Doug – attended Spooner’s diocesan school.

During Olson-Leckel’s later years as a student, the church building underwent a major remodel. With the front and back sides of the church flip-flopping, “I don’t see much of what I remember in the church as a student.”

In the school section of the structure, situated one block west of Highway 63 and kitty-corner to Spooner’s downtown business district, she remembers the cinder block walls in the classrooms and counting holes where paint bubbles had popped, “when I probably should have been paying attention to the teacher.”

Another current SFdS parent and schoolmate of Olson-Leckel’s is 1991 graduate Shawna (Halvorson) Cleveland. With the youngest of her three children in the seventh grade, Cleveland’s involvement at the school will change in the near future. Although, with her younger brother’s children attending the school as well as a cousin’s son and nephews on her husband’s side, and various friends with children at St. Francis de Sales, she won’t have to say goodbye to the school hallways yet.

Cleveland recalls the church renovation was exciting as a kid, but the school bathrooms upstairs and principal’s office haven’t changed except for paint colors.
“I walk through the hall and it feels the same!” she exclaimed.

The oldest of four, Cleveland’s brothers all attended St. Francis de Sales. Before the youngest graduated, their cousins were carrying on the extended family’s presence.

“It is very interconnected as time goes on,” she said, adding that she and two other classmates roomed together at college and were in each other’s weddings.
Cleveland, an oncology nurse at Marshfield Clinic in Rice Lake, and her husband, who owns a small business in Spooner, never questioned whether or not to send their children to St. Francis.

“I love this church and school, even through difficulties and changes,” she affirmed, also acknowledging the strong support the school has experienced from the parish and cluster communities.

The Clevelands’ two sons now attend Spooner High School – one will graduate in 2022 and the other is a sophomore.

The mother believes the younger grades are important, “but the middle school age kids have so many outside pressures that our school continues to be a safe place for them. Hopefully, academics can be high but more importantly they are learning faith and family values in school.”

Cleveland, who has also been heavily involved with St. Francis’ Home and School Association and various other endeavors led by parent volunteers, iterated how important the Catholic school is for self-esteem and safety during the early-teen years.

“Our school provides that and they can be their true selves in a small setting. My sons in high school have such good work ethic,” she added. “They can work independently and understand what it is to be good members of our community and church.

“They were so well prepared for high school,” she said, confirming her experience through comments shared by a high school substitute teacher. The sub told Cleveland how they were always happy to see the boys’ names on a class list – “I understand where they came from.”

During Cleveland’s years the classrooms were combined grades, and she credits that with teaching her the skills of independent work and accountability. Faith in God and Christian values were also instilled along with respect for adults and high academic standards.

“We had teachers who were so dedicated and put all their effort into teaching for so many years,” she stated.

Olson-Leckel described her teachers as “pretty amazing.” She is of the opinion that the smaller class sizes allow teachers to help each student produce quality work and be the best version of themselves.

“What I learned most as a SFdS student,” she said, “Was that we did our work and we did it well … neat and organized.

“As a second-grade teacher now, I encourage all my students to do their best – do it nice or do it twice.”

Priest of the Diocese of Superior Fr. John Anderson is one of a small group of active priests who are alumni of diocesan Catholic schools. As the pastor of the New Richmond parishes of Immaculate Conception and St. Patrick’s (Erin Prairie), he is part of an even more select few serving in the parish and school communities they grew up in.

The youngest of five, Fr. Anderson attended St. Mary’s School in New Richmond all eight years of elementary school. His mother, Patricia Casey, is also a St. Mary’s graduate and nieces Kenley and Gracie Cole are now the fourth generation of descendants of Francis and Mary Casey to attend the school.

Throughout his almost 30 years of priesthood, Fr. Anderson has served in multiple parish school communities. He counts “tremendously dedicated staff” as a primary common denominator among the diocese’s Catholic schools.

“They know, they promote and they live the mission of the church – in all the Catholic schools I’ve worked in,” he said.

The spirit of service and Christian charity – in and outside the school building – is another trait he has seen in these communities over time. He remembers from his own school days visiting nursing homes and writing cards to the elderly.

While not everything remains the same – the New Richmond school has also undergone many renovations since Fr. Anderson’s school days – he says, “that’s not a bad thing,” as change can indicate growth and the realization of potential.

When he returned to St. Mary’s as pastor, the only thing still in the same location were the bathrooms. That, and the presence of the statue of Mary. The only period of time that statue has not been in the school was when principal, Laura Jo Jarchow, had it refurbished.

That statue of the school patroness was in a different spot, and as he grew, she didn’t seem quite so big, but is the same Mary that greets students, staff and school visitors today.

“Most definitely there is still the strong Catholic identity,” the priest stated.

He also noted the sense of appreciation and value for that identity and the mission of Catholic education among all the priests, “absolutely, and especially by Bishop Powers.”

It was during his years as a Catholic school student that “strong seeds of priesthood were planted” in young Anderson’s life.

One comment made by each contributor to this article was in regards to school uniforms.

“Why do I have to wear this stupid uniform,” Fr. Anderson admitted thinking. He added that most of what he complained about as a kid he values as an adult: “I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Chuckling, the priest added he stills wears a uniform and appreciates it more than ever.

Cleveland noted similar feelings. Although the dress code when she was a St. Francis de Sales student was much stricter, she remembered the allowance for any color socks.

“Of course we wore all colors and stripes,” she said.

“I did complain about the dress code but so appreciate it now for my kids,” adding, “I guess now it is the same for me as I get to wear scrubs as my adult ‘uniform.’”

Olson-Leckel echoed the same distaste as a child, but exclaimed that “As a mom, I love uniforms! No decisions about what to wear every day. And I love the value that as a parent, my kids are not being judged for the clothes they wear to school.”

For Fr. Anderson’s parents, the value of a Catholic education was seen as an investment by his parents, who focused on the longer-term benefits.

“It was a tough go,” Fr. Anderson said for a large farming family, especially with a non-Catholic father paying tuition bills.

“I look at how he did it,” the priest continued, “He didn’t look at the dollars and cents of it, but the common sense of it – the reasons he believed in it.”

Olson-Leckel shared a similar experience from her childhood.

“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but somehow my parents were able to send all four of us through Catholic school. We didn’t have a lot of things growing up, but our Catholic faith was also first … and you cannot put a price on Catholic education and Christian values,” she affirmed.

For his part, Fr. Anderson said that tuition help is always available. The only real obstacle can be asking for it.

That said, he returned to the bigger picture of a Catholic school and the environment both students and parents become immersed in.

“You’re not just sending your student there for classes,” he said, “You become part of a community.”

As a Catholic school teacher, Olson-Leckel hopes her students’ parents value things beyond the academic education. She said they appreciate that their children are in a family-like atmosphere getting individualized attention, as well as the focus on guiding students to be and develop into the best versions of themselves.

She greatly encourages parental involvement: “As parents we are our children’s first teachers. We should help them be the very best they can be and lead by example.”

Fr. Anderson acknowledged the role of the entire family’s participation in Catholic education.

He said that the academic preparation and personal discipline of Catholic school students is something that stands out in the public high schools of every community within the diocese with a Catholic school.

Those students excel in every aspect, but especially in character, he said.