The Parents of St. Catherine’s Montessori: A Chain of Helping Hands, Linked Across Decades
As St. Catherine’s celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, we look back and give thanks to all who contributed to the achievement of this amazing milestone. One group – so large, so generous, so unstinting in every way – has and continues to be the wonderful parents of the St. Catherine’s community. As always, Sister Shirley said it best: “The parents support the school because they have seen our program and they like it. Without the parents, St. Catherine’s Montessori would not be.”
The Path to the Castle
From the very beginning, when Sr. Edna Ann opened the doors to Dominican Montessori (as SCM was originally called) with 43 students in the former St. Agnes Academy building, parents pitched in. “They collected recipes and made a beautiful cookbook to raise money,” remembers Sr. Mary Magdalen Hanel. Parents donated items to class lists of needed supplies, volunteered to organize and clean up, and generally jumped in with both feet to support the school.
“All parents are in the PSO the minute they become parents at St. Catherine’s,” said Mary Tysor, current chair of the SCM Parent Service Organization. The PSO was officially founded in 1989, but parent volunteer efforts were the backbone of the school from its inception, and never more so than when the school needed new premises. The Timberside school campus is the fourth building occupied by St. Catherine’s, and the history of each move can be traced back to the dedicated parents who helped the school continue, sustaining its mission.
“Mothers have baked cakes to sell. Fathers have volunteered to paint. Some have guaranteed bank loans. And one father who runs an ad agency volunteered to take pictures and put out a brochure. All to help keep 'the little society' at Dominican Montessori school afloat,” ran an article in The Houston Post, May 26, 1974, when the St. Agnes building was sold and the school needed to vacate the premises. Father Gerald Joubert of Holy Rosary found an unused parish daycare on the second floor of the Holy Rosary building. Families worked around the clock, packing up and moving the entire school in just three days to its new home at 3617 Milam Street.
That same year, parents, lead by Peter Morris, spearheaded the effort to establish the school’s status as a non-profit corporation, enabling financial support from benefactors, grants, and private donations. Their foresight was prescient, as the school would have to move again in less than a decade.
In 1982, now with 117 students aged 2 ½ to 9 years, the school was “Caught between the city of Houston’s building code mandate that they vacate their downtown Holy Rosary Parish Building and a time-consuming and ultimately failed effort to build a new school in Bellaire,” explained an article in Texas Magazine's April, 24, 1983 issue. But, the story continued, “St. Catherine Montessori pulled off a coup: The school found an existing building and started classes within seven months. More than that, it was accomplished within budget.”
The speed and cost-effectiveness of the move to that existing building, the abandoned Weatherby Arms Museum, were largely due to the parents. The previous fall, parents threw the school’s first gala and auction, “A Night in Old Siena” to raise funds for acquiring and renovating a new campus. When building the school in Bellaire didn’t work out, parents organized rapidly and creatively to turn the derelict Arms Museum into a school.
The place was desperately in need of a major overhaul, which was done almost entirely with parent volunteers. Architect Bill Wheatley did the interior architectural plans. Another parent, Stuart Baker, volunteered his construction management of the project. An Exxon executive Jim Bragg, constructed custom oak cabinets. Photos of the construction show fathers Jim Dubay and John Sweeney taking sledgehammers to the walls, mother Helen Caspar assembling shelves, parents Pat and Bronne Conoley loading trucks…the list could go on for days. Parents transformed the asphalt parking lot into landscaped areas for gardens and playgrounds, drove dump trucks and moving trucks and loading carts, laid tiles and floors, and performed a hundred other tasks that saved the school money and time.
Even the children helped! Bill and Len Slusser’s children Adam and Joanna can be seen collecting debris, while Maria Diaz (yes, the same Maria Diaz still at the school!) and her daughter Leonor unpacked and organized the entire library.
St. Catherine’s “Castle,” as the 2510 Westridge campus was affectionately known, seemed like a final home for the school. But once again, forward thinking parents began planning for campus that would be designed and built from the ground up as a Montessori environment. By 1999, in a “Hats Off to the New Millennium” gala and auction celebrating the school’s 33rd year, parents were already raising over $68,500 for a building fund for a permanent location.
In PSO chair Mary Tysor’s words, “Someone already paved the way for my child to be in this school. When you know other parents made the effort to move us from the castle to this school...They didn’t get to benefit from all the hard work they put in, but they did it any way, because they believed in the school as a great place for future families and children. To me, I’m paying it forward.”
Still to come – “From the Castle to the Dream Campus”