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The Ties That Bind: How 100 Years of Saint Mary’s Catholic High School Helped Phoenix
By Mike Saucier
Any Phoenix institution that hits the century mark occupies rare air.
So it’s a significant feat of perseverance that the first and oldest Catholic school in the state, Saint Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, founded just five years after Arizona achieved statehood, is celebrating its 100th year.
That is some staying power. Because of its presence over such a long period, it has formed and nourished iron-strong community ties — both the ties the students have with one another and those they forge with the school and the place they live.
The Rideau family of Phoenix has had 53 of its members graduate from Saint Mary’s since 1946, according to the school’s principal, Suzanne Fessler. A fourth generation currently attends the school. The same is true for several other Saint Mary’s families.
“It’s a great joy to see the children of former students, of mine in some cases, carrying on their family legacy and the Saint Mary’s family legacy in their own right,” Fessler said.
These are the kinds of ties that bind generations of families to a school, to a faith, to a community. These same ties grow in strength and in length over the course of 100 years, making Saint Mary’s one of the true Phoenix pillars, the trunk of a century-old tree that has grown thousands of branches now stretching through the urban desert oasis.
The words of its motto are etched on the original entryway to Saint Mary’s and were as true to its mission in 1917 as they are in 2017: Pro Deo, Domo, et Patria — For God, Home, and Country.
“I consider it a great blessing to be a part of this family,” said Rev. Robert Bolding, the president-rector at Saint Mary’s. “St. Mary’s is one of the bedrock institutions of Phoenix. There really are not many things in the Valley that are 100 years old. It’s a very rich tradition and a large family. It has always been a great source of joy for me to be able to be a part of it.”
A hundred years of existence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Part of Saint Mary’s fiber is the pride it takes in keeping alumni connected to the school. On campus and among former students, the saying goes: “Once a Knight, Always a Knight.” Graduates become part of a family — a giant one, with a century of Knights in Phoenix and scattered around the world.
Herb Bool, Class of 1950, was once a Knight and still is. In fact, the Saint Mary’s gymnasium is named for him. Bool, who still lives in Phoenix, embodies both the Saint Mary’s mission and its “Always a Knight” spirit and has lived out each word of its motto.
Pro deo: Bool and his wife Betty still go to church — not just on Sunday, but every day.
Pro domo: Herb and Betty have made a family since settling in Phoenix in the 1950s, with four children and seven grandchildren.
Pro patria: Bool served as a pilot in the Air Force and has served Saint Mary’s in several capacities since he left.
Bool’s path to service is like that of generations of Saint Mary’s alumni who have served or are serving their city, state, or country as politicians, judges, police officers, firefighters, and servicemen and women.
“Our graduates work pro patria (for country),” Fessler said.
Bool, who turns 85 this month, has been “always a Knight” in a most significant way. He and fellow businessman Jim Meenaghan founded the “Sponsor-a-Student” program in 1996. It has since helped hundreds of students be able to attend Saint Mary’s whose families, in most cases, would not have been able to afford a private Catholic education for their children.
Bool recently reminisced about his days at Saint Mary’s. He recalled that the priests who ran the school at the time were “strict but pretty fair.” But his favorite memories were made on the football field, where Bool, as quarterback, led the Knights to a state championship and two city championships. He went on to play quarterback for Cornell University (he drove there in a 1937 Ford), where he also excelled at lacrosse and swimming. One of his classmates at Cornell, Peter Eisenman, would go on to design University of Phoenix Stadium. Bool would later attend the opening of the stadium as a guest of Eisenman and the Bidwill family.
Bool moved to Phoenix from Dayton, Ohio, as a boy because his father has tuberculosis and was told by a doctor he was going to die very soon but could extend his life by six months if he moved to Arizona. Six months turned into 40 years and his father started a cactus business on Camelback Road, a dirt thoroughfare at the time.
“He did pretty well having come here to die,” Bool said.
Those were the days when Phoenicians would beat the heat by sleeping on the screen porch under sheets that had been soaked in cold water, Bool said.
Fast forward to today. Herb and Betty Bool have contributed over $1 million over the years to ease Saint Mary’s tuition burdens for families.
“Most of Saint Mary’s kids need help,” said Betty Bool. She said they try to give enough of a “push for them to be able to go to a Catholic school.”
The Bools enjoy taking the students they help to lunch at Alexi’s Grill on Central Ave.
“These kids are so nice,” Betty Bool said. “Almost all of them go to college after Saint Mary’s. It just amazes me how much they appreciate being there.”
The Bools have dozens of thank you notes from students over the years who express their gratitude to the them for helping with tuition.
“I feel that the Catholic environment and teachings have made me a better person as a whole,” wrote a sophomore in 2015. “I do not think that attending this school would be possible without you.”
The same student wrote that the main goal of the school “is to form virtuous men and women.”
Last year, a young woman wrote to the Bools noting that she at first did not want to attend Saint Mary’s because her friends were in a public school. But, she wrote, after two years at Saint Mary’s, “I have fallen in love with the school. It has helped me become more responsible and outgoing. I am very thankful that my parents enrolled me into a school that has brought out the best in me.”
Another student wrote: “I want to thank you for sponsoring me. You take a lot of stress off of my parents.”
The Bools’ gifts go mostly toward helping students who will be first-generation college students. In 2017, those students made up 56 percent of the graduating class.
The Bools are just one of thousands of generous donors who believe in the kind of education Saint Mary’s provides. They understand the ripple effect. Helping a student complete their studies at Saint Mary’s is an investment that will yield benefits for Phoenix, for Arizona and for the country. Approximately 88 percent of Saint Mary’s students receive full or partial scholarships so it’s crucial that its donors, from foundations to alumni, remain active.
Saint Mary’s was founded in 1917 by the Sisters of the Precious Blood and opened its doors to 17 students — 5 boys and 12 girls. Since then, 10,257 students have received an education within its walls.
“Something that cannot be overlooked is that St. Mary’s has always been a place where an excellent Catholic education is available to anyone who wants it and is willing to work for it,” said Rev. Bolding. “It is a very good school, but it is not elite and it is not exclusive.”
Saint Mary’s opened its own location on East Monroe St. in 1920 before moving to Polk Street later on. The rapid growth of downtown Phoenix made it hard for the school to expand. Its campus was razed in 1988 to make way for the Arizona Center. Today it resides at Third and Sheridan streets.
The school’s mission has not wavered in the face of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the economic recession of 2008 and relocation. As Rev. Bolding said in the latest alumni magazine feting the 100th anniversary, the school has a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of education. It sees education not merely a means to transcend social class, to find the right job or to make money. A Saint Mary’s education, rooted in the ancient tradition of western civilization, is ordered toward happiness, the kind that comes from fulfilling one’s true purpose. Students leave with an understanding of how to live well.
“What makes St. Mary’s so special is its commitment to providing an authentically Catholic and authentically liberal arts education to its students,” said Rev. Bolding. “We strive to fulfill the traditional aims of education — to form young men and women in truth, goodness, and beauty. In one very real sense, Saint Mary’s is from the ‘old school.’ However, this commitment to preserving the traditional ends of education has the effect of making us a little bit countercultural, swimming upstream in a way that is really refreshing and attractive to our families. So, in another equally real sense, Saint Mary’s remains something new.”
The school’s classroom success extends to its fields and courts. Saint Mary’s has a rich athletic tradition, with 80 percent of its students competing in a team sport and its football, softball and girls and boys basketball teams winning a combined 20 state championships and one national championship (including the victorious 1949 team led by Bool). The school can brag that NBA champion and former Phoenix Suns star Channing Frye, Class of 2001, and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, Class of 2000, were once (and will always be!) Knights.
The century milestone for Saint Mary’s will be feted at a gala on October 21 at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix. Co-chairs for the gala are alumni Beth Wand, director of operations at Sunland Water Company and Barbara Bandura, first vice president at MidFirst Bank.
It will be a bittersweet celebration for not only alumni but also those who keep the tradition alive every day, such as Fessler, its principal who has also served in her 32 years at the school as teacher and assistant principal.
“I can think of no better way to spend my life than to be a member of this school community which focuses on teaching students where and how Truth and Happiness is found,” she said.
The gala will bring together the school’s nearby and far-flung alumni — the ties that bind them to each other and to the school they love coming together for one night under the same roof in Phoenix.
How Love Built Saint Mary’s
I can only imagine the great love, faith, dedication and commitment our founding Sisters and Priests put forth to lay the foundation of Saint Mary’s one hundred years ago.
A more recent story (and experience) that comes to mind that embodies the Saint Mary’s experience is of how the school gymnasium was built. After moving to our new site at Third Street and Sheridan, our campus was “gymless” for a couple of years. We all needed and wanted a gym, but funds for building a new gym weren’t yet in the picture.
Behold, our shining Knight, Roger Spade, Class of 1966, stepped forward to lead the charge. He gathered alumnae, families, friends, faculty, staff, and students to participate in the building of a gymnasium. He made contacts with people from all over the Valley for material donations. He scoured the city for resources that could be used to build a gym and found a school that was redoing its entire gym floor due to some rain damage, but the flooring that was not damaged was plenty for the Saint Mary’s gym.
He also found some metal siding for walls from another school that was closing, and countless fixtures. People volunteered their time and resources. The school even won state and national awards from the Arizona and National “Take Pride in America” campaign, honoring us for recycling perfectly good materials for our gym. Hoc fecit amor—love built this.
— Suzanne Fessler, Saint Mary’s principal