Delta school overcomes obstacles to celebrate 100 years

St. Mary students wear "100" glasses Jan. 30 at their school's 100th birthday party. On the tables in the background are cardboard cakes created by the students for Catholic Schools Week.
St. Mary students wear "100" glasses Jan. 30 at their school's 100th birthday party. On the tables in the background are cardboard cakes created by the students for Catholic Schools Week.

This year, St. Mary School in Lake Village is celebrating 100 years of Catholic education in the Delta. The school began celebrating the anniversary last August and will continue through May.
Principal Kelly Pieroni said the festivities started, Friday, Aug. 15 with a “Back to School Bash” on the parking lot of the school. The lunchtime event included a cookout, cake, balloon lift off and a proclamation from alumna Mayor Jo Anne Bush, marking the beginning of a yearlong celebration for Lake Village.
“It was just lots of fun,” Pieroni said.
Then on Sunday, Aug. 17, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor celebrated the 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Lake Church. Students were lectors and altar servers.
Throughout the year, students have been doing service projects to give back in honor of the 100th anniversary, Pieroni said.
Among these, students raised money for Catholic schools affected by Hurricane Ike, donated food to a local food pantry, sponsored two Chicot County foster children for Christmas and a Catholic student from nearby Our Lady of the Lourdes School in Greenville, Miss., who has leukemia, and made Valentine cards for seniors, hospital patients and veterans.
Currently they are taking part in Catholic Relief Services’ Operation Rice Bowl during Lent. The projects are being coordinated through the students’ religion classes. Also planned are Easter cards for parish shut-ins and flower planting on the school grounds in May, Pieroni said.
“We do a lot of service projects,” she said. “We feel it is very important to teach children just like Jesus did, to serve others.”
On Jan. 23, the school celebrated the 100th day of the school year in the 100th year of the school. Students decorated cardboard cakes, which were used as table centerpieces for Catholic Schools Week, held Jan. 26-30.
A birthday party for the school was held Jan. 30. Students donned birthday hats and 100th birthday eye glasses while enjoying an outdoor cookout, birthday cake and games.
On Feb. 21, St. Mary hosted “Wild About Education,” a fundraiser for about 150 alumni and friends. The Mardi-Gras-themed dinner and dance included live and silent auctions. Pieroni said the event raised more than $17,000 for the school’s building fund.
Currently there are 91 students in the PreK3-through-sixth-grade school, which, the principal said, is pretty good considering the decreasing population and economic turmoil of the region.
Lake Village, located in the southeastern corner of Arkansas, is only minutes from Mississippi. The town itself has about 2,800 people, but Pieroni said another 3,000 live around the lake.
“It’s a very rural area. A lot of impoverished people are here,” she said.
These challenges make the 100th anniversary that much more meaningful. She said she is amazed by the people who sacrificed to build and sustain the school, originally built in 1925, considering that the Great Depression came along in the 1930s.
“I’m getting chills, just knowing the struggles that they had, it was around the Great Depression that they were so determined to have a school that they sacrificed and obviously it was well built; it’s still here,” she said.
According to historical records, St. Mary of the Lake Church, now known as Our Lady of the Lake Church, was established in 1869. In the fall of 1908, Father Matthew Saettele opened St. Mary School. A small convent was built for the Olivetan Benedictine sisters from Jonesboro who ran the school. Classes were held in the church.
The following year the sisters left but the school continued. In 1910 Benedictines from Shoal Creek (now St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith) took over the school and ran it until 1987.
In 1912 a room was added to the church for the school. Soon after a house was converted into the school. In 1925, Father Joachim Galloni oversaw the building of a new brick school with an auditorium and four large classrooms.
A new church was built in 1939 followed by a new parish hall in 1965, which still serves as the school’s cafeteria. Outdoor basketball and tennis courts were added in 1967.
Peroni came to St. Mary as a teacher in 1999 and was named principal in 2000. She said through the years, many renovations were done and additions were made to the school but the original 1925 brick school is still used today.
In 1987 the seventh and eighth grades were dropped but a kindergarten was added in 1988. In 2001 the former sister’s convent was renovated into a preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. The school also added an after-school program, computer lab, Spanish classes and accelerated reading program in recent years.
“Our children, when they leave kindergarten, they are reading well,” she said.
Pieroni also teaches full time at St. Mary, but she is not the only one who wears many hats at the school. Her office manager is also the school nurse, music and physical education teacher and bus driver.
St. Mary has four teachers who have taught there for more than 30 years and another for 17 years. Only two have been there less than 10 years, she said.
“We’re very, very blessed,” she said. “They just love to teach. If they didn’t they certainly wouldn’t do it for the money. We’re not able to offer the recommended diocesan salary schedule. We’re not even close.”
The diocese’s Catholic Arkansas Sharing Appeal, along with federal and private grants, help the school upgrade its equipment and technology as well as maintenance on the school building. This year, foundation repairs are scheduled, Pieroni said.
Reflecting on the school’s 100th anniversary, Pieroni said, “to know that it still continues in this day of financial struggles for people, is just miraculous to me especially in the Delta.”
She said St. Mary is more than just a school, it’s also a family.
“It’s just a very special place,” Pieroni said. “I hope we can continue another 100 years.”

Tara Little

Tara Little joined Arkansas Catholic in 2000 and has served in various capacities, including production manager and associate editor. Since 2006 she has managed the website for the Diocese of Little Rock.

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