Lorraine Latham Ekerson holds up a picture of her 1945 graduating class during the afternoon festivities. The Benedictine sisters at St. John the Apostle put students in the “right direction morally, scholastically,” she said. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Lorraine Latham Ekerson holds up a picture of her 1945 graduating class during the afternoon festivities. The Benedictine sisters at St. John the Apostle put students in the “right direction morally, scholastically,” she said. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
OREGON CITY — The 19th-century missionary Father Pierre-Jean De Smet would have been befuddled by the parents’ iPads — whipped out to capture young square dancers’ springy steps — and the slideshow flipping through decades of images. But if the famous Jesuit priest had lingered at St. John the Apostle School’s 175th anniversary celebration, he likely would have noticed much that was familiar. Most significantly, the faith that animated his frontier adventures permeates the school.

St. John the Apostle “is very Catholic,” said Father Maxy D’Costa, good-naturedly sitting in an almost-life-sized covered wagon replica for an interview at an anniversary party Sept. 22. “You walk in the hallways, you talk to the kids, you see how they devote themselves to prayer, to the holy Mass. That’s the hallmark of our school.”

Father D’Costa, who is pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish, joined current school families, staff and alumni for a celebration that included prayer but also history-inspired fun. The day featured a seed-spitting contest for second graders, the lively square dancing and an all-school art project. Knights of Columbus from the parish’s Dr. John McLoughlin Council 2325 were on hand to serve up burgers and hot dogs. Among the Knights was Mark Walters, who graduated from St. John the Apostle in 1969.

In the past 50 years, “a lot of things have improved,” he said. “There are new windows and air conditioning in the rooms now.”

The core values haven’t changed, though, “and that’s a really good thing,” said Walters. The community teaches that “everybody’s important as a person and you need to respect others.”

Throughout the Sunday event, current students gave school tours and conducted alumni interviews. There also was a history walk with photo-filled albums.

In 1844, Father De Smet — a Belgian whom his brother described as “hardy, adventurous and indifferent to danger” — arrived in Oregon City. With him came Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from Europe. Like the Jesuit, the six women were feisty on behalf of their faith, braving rough seas and homesickness to open the first Catholic school in the city. Earlier that same year, the sisters established St. Paul School, officially the oldest Catholic school in the Pacific Northwest.

St. John the Apostle School, known under different names, has moved locations several times and hasn’t had a continuous run. It closed for a few periods in the 1800s, including during the 1850s, when the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur left for California to minister to those seeking a boon in the gold rush. At one point the school included a high school. The Benedictine Sisters arrived in 1885 and served until 1982, when school operations passed to the laity.

Yet for most of the past 175 years, the school has remained open, even as other Catholic schools in the archdiocese were forced to shut their doors.

Father D’Costa attributes its longevity to the ongoing support of the parish community and the pastors.

“But one of the biggest reasons the school is celebrating this anniversary is because of the role the nuns played in education,” said the priest. “Over the years they were here serving the community and that’s what sustained it. Thanks be to God for those nuns.”

Benedictine Sister Rebecca Pirkl arrived at St. John the Apostle in 1968 and served for 13 years, first as a fifth grade teacher and then as both a sixth grade teacher and principal.

There always was “a lot of nature” in her classrooms, recalled Sister Rebecca. She had a terrarium, home to salamanders and tiny frogs, and she once had a white rat. “Kids played with it during breaktime and it would crawl on their shoulders,” she said.

Sister Rebecca also integrated music into the students’ days. When they needed a break, “I’d just stop and start a song.”

The Sept. 22 anniversary festivities were held in the parish center, where Mary Serres and Lorraine Latham Ekerson perused photos and reminisced about the school in the 1930s and ’40s. The longtime friends graduated in 1945.

“One of the negative things was there was no talking when you ate lunch, ” said Ekerson. “That would kill me now,” she added, laughing.

Serres, who married a St. John the Apostle classmate, recalled how tuition was $1.25 a month.

The two women agreed the school gave them a strong faith foundation and put them in the “right direction morally, scholastically,” said Ekerson.

Current student Rhylie Means, a sixth grader, said she loves that her school has been around for nearly two centuries.

“It’s super cool how old the school is,” said Means. Classmate Joy Shamrell, holding a plate of cake, nodded in agreement.

Dan Benski is a 1967 graduate and sent his daughter and son to St. John the Apostle. Now two granddaughters attend.

It’s a community where “there is love and patience; it’s like an extended family,” he said. “It’s like home.”