St. Benedict School


St. Benedict School

402 Rural Avenue

Decorah, Iowa 52101


Principal Dana Holkesvik

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        The Sisters of Mercy in Cedar Rapids were invited by Father Peter Garraghan, pastor of St. Benedict Church, to begin a school in the parish.  The invitation was accepted, and the first school to be staffed by the sisters outside of the Cedar Rapids area was begun in 1885.  Five sisters were sent to Decorah:  Sister Mary Patricia Smith, Sister Mary Teresa Salmon, Sister Mary Andrew Fallon, Sister Mary Bernadine Goulding, and Sister Mary Zita Murphy, who was in charge of the kitchen.

The five sisters reached Decorah to find their convent to be a converted inn built against a steep hill on John Street.  In 1907 the convent was heavily damaged in a fire, and a new brick building was completed by the next year.

        The original frame school building had four square rooms, two on the first floor and two directly above, each room having light and air on three sides.  The building was connected to the convent by a second-floor passageway, affectionately called by the students "the bridge of sigh.

        For the first years, education was provided to twelve grades of students.  Because of a low number of students, the high school was discontinued in 1919.  In 1956, graduates of St. Benedict's elementary school enrolled in the newly organized DeSales Central Catholic High School in Ossian.  A new school bus and a station wagon were purchased for transportation of the students, and the assistant pastor was assigned to the faculty of the new school.  This arrangement continued until DeSales High School was closed in 1969.

        Records indicate that school enrollment was about one hundred students in 1919.  Year by year the number gradually increased.  In order to accommodate the increasing enrollment, the Sisters had been relocated to a new convent near the church in the early 1950s, and the former convent was remodeled for use as an addition to the school.  Ten years later, the lack of adequate space was again a problem, and plans were developed to build a new school.

        Undeveloped property was purchased on the southern edge of Decorah, and construction of the new facility was completed in 1964.  The split-level building included eight classrooms, a multi-purpose room, chapel, library, music room, kitchen, and offices.  Total cost of the project was $268,000.

        At that time a teacher aide program was initiated by forty Christian mother-volunteers who also provided lunchroom supervision and assistance for the faculty in clerical, library, and remedial work in the school.

        By the early 1980s, the parish was growing rapidly and a census revealed that forty more students would be enrolling at the school within the next two years.  Planning was begun on a four room addition to include two additional classrooms, a new music room, and space for teaching aids and storage.

        In September of 1985, the centennial year of the school, Archbishop Daniel W. Kucera, OSB, was present for the dedication of the new addition.  In addition to the blessing of the structure, a parish program and dance was held at Matter's Ballroom, and an all-parish picnic followed a Dedication Mass at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 29.

        The school continued to expand in the 1990s.  Grades 6, 7, and 8 were formed into a middle school during that decade.  Cooperative efforts with the Decorah Public Schools increased with the school district providing bus transportation to and from school as well as to special events.  Middle school students participate in athletic and music programs with the public school.  St. Benedict's has also benefited from the presence of Luther College, serving as a site for students and teachers to have classroom experience and receive special programs and teachers in music.  The school also has two instructors who provide piano lessons for students, in addition to the classroom, vocal, and band programs already offered.  In later years, additional staff were contracted to provide counseling, reading assistance, individualized work, art, and technology.

        The need for the addition of a kindergarten was determined from a survey of the parish, and planning was begun in 1995.  Two years later, the first class was begun, and the early childhood unit was developed to include kindergarten, first, and second grade.

        In the early 1990s, the presence of the Sisters of Mercy was evident in the services of Sister Francesca Oldham, principal, and Sisters Charlene Chase, Mary Brian Kelly, and Phyllis Ries.  Relocations and retirements ended the association of the Sisters with the school in the summer of 1998.  Mrs. Catherine Campbell began as the first lay principal of St. Benedict School in the fall of that year.  Enrollment for the 2000-2001 school year numbered 184 students, with thirteen of them being non-parishoners.

        St. Benedict School purchased the portable building that sat next to the school from the Decorah Community School District in January of 2000.  (The building once housed Title One classes before they were allowed to be on the Catholic school premises.)  After exhausting many options for a preschool, it was agreed upon to renovate the portable building to create a preschool for three and four year olds.  After the summer months of volunteer work, the building was completed and the doors were opened on September 5, 2000, to the first preschool classes of five students each. Preschool is now held in the main school building with a 3yr. old and 4 & 5 yr. old program being offered.  The portable building is currently used as Youth Group activity space for our parish.

        In the spring of 2000, the school was pleased to accept the offer from Tom and Diane Stortz to create a significant memorial for Tom's parents, Charles and Norma Stortz.  Tom and his wife agreed to finance the addition of a new media center and computer lab.  A ground breaking ceremony was held October 13, 2000 and construction proceeded.  On August 24, 2001, the building was dedicated during a special ceremony with Father Gary Krapfl and Father Tom Toale present.  Tom and Diane Stortz were also present along with other family members.  Classes in the media center began soon after the dedication.  Now the center welcomes students during scheduled times weekly and is also open during study halls and work time. 

        Today, St. Benedict School continues to provide an excellent education for grades preschool through eight.  We strive to teach with a standards based education in all curricular, social, and religious areas.