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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

091517 st michaels gastoniaGASTONIA — Seventy-five years ago, the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey and the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont planted the seeds of Catholic education in Gastonia with St. Michael School. The school, which opened in 1942 in a little frame house on Jackson Road, has since blossomed into a thriving extended family.

Many of the families in Gaston County who have sent their children to St. Michael’s will be on hand Oct. 14 to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

One of those families is Julie Gardner Kiser’s family. The Gardners are longtime Catholic residents of Gaston County. Her grandparents lived near the school in Gastonia and sent her father Edward Gardner and his siblings to St. Michael’s when it was in the little house on Jackson Road. They also helped get the school going in its current location, now on St. Michael Lane, back in 1952.

Pictured: Mercy Sister Mary Celestine is pictured teaching the eighth grade at St. Michael School in this undated photo.
(Photos provided by Diocese of Charlotte Archives)

Her uncle Daniel Gardner helped plant the two huge oak trees in front of the school as part of a Boy Scout project more than half a century ago.

“I love St. Michael’s,” Kiser says. “It’s been a part of my history for a long time. It’s a phenomenal school. I pray for that school often.”

Her siblings and her three children also graduated from St. Michael School, and Kiser worked there for 16 years.

“I miss it terribly!” she says. “I miss the children so much. They have never lost the small school feel, with one class per grade.”

Steven Cherry’s family has also enjoyed a close association with St. Michael’s for generations.

“I am one of 10 children who graduated from St. Michael School. I graduated in 1966 and was fortunate to receive a wonderful education from the Sisters of Mercy who staffed the school. The success of St. Michael School is not only due to the monks of Belmont Abbey, but the Sisters of Mercy who staffed the school for many years before and after me.”

Cherry recalls that Benedictine Father Gregory Eichenlaub played an integral role at the parish and the school.

“He became our pastor in the early ’40s and was instrumental in the growth of the school in the ’50s and ’60s. During his tenure, it was not uncommon for him to visit classrooms and interact with students and frequently passed out comments on Report Card Day.”

Cherry and his wife Ann sent their three children to the school in the mid- to late ’90s.

091517 st michaels 4“I wanted to send my children there because it was my home and I wanted it to be their home as well, where their Catholic faith and tradition was a part of their daily lives and an educational foundation was being laid to serve them throughout their lives.”

He was pleased when his grandchildren began attending St. Michael’s as well.

“I know that the Catholic education they receive will serve them in life and in the future as it has for me and my children,” he says.

Teresa Bookout, whose son graduated from St. Michael’s, served as administrative assistant and manned the front desk for 32 years until her retirement.

“I fell in love with it,” Bookout says. “I fell in love with my job. I fell in love with the children… At St. Michael School you get to know everyone. We were like a little community. We looked after one another.”

Bookout recalls how she comforted students when they were sick, waiting for a parent to come pick them up. She also held many a baby on her lap while the mother needed to meet privately with the principal or a teacher.

Joe Puceta, a former principal who worked with Bookout, is also the father of two St. Michael’s alumni. His daughters graduated during his first tenure at the school, 1991 to 1993. He returned in 1998 and retired in 2014 after serving 16 more years as principal.

“I consider it a family,” Puceta says. “When I was out working carpool I knew all the cars, knew all the grandmas and grandpas, and everyone who dropped off kids at the school I pretty much knew. Our teachers knew everyone, too.”

Puceta recalls St. Michael’s was one of the first schools in the Diocese of Charlotte to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, something that all 19 of the diocesan schools have now achieved. Also during his tenure, the school was enlarged to include sixth through eighth grade.

“We made our program academically stronger. It was a good religious environment. We have had very supportive priests,” he recalls. “We were extremely supported by our Catholic community and the Gastonia community. The mayor at that time attended our school. Every police department, (and) fire department has members of our graduates.”

Music and physical education teacher Barbara Kenley, who has worked at St. Michael’s for more than 30 years, also loves her job.

“I feel so blessed to have been a part of this school for so long. It has been a joy to have the freedom to speak of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I’ve been touched by many special people: students, parents, co-workers, principals and priests. I could really write a book about all my experiences at this wonderful place,” Kenley says.

Says St. Michael’s current principal Sheila Levesque, “I can tell you it is very easy to fall in love with St. Michael School. We do act as a family.” When there is a family in need we support that family, no questions asked.

Levesque notes the school has built strong community partnerships, with organizations such as police and fire departments, teacher cadet programs at nearby high schools and the Belmont Abbey teacher program, and is proud of the service-based outreach programs students are involved in. The students help sick and shut-in parishioners, visit nursing homes, make cards, participate in canned food drives and clothing drives for the community, and send the proceeds of a monthly jeans day to a charity.

091517 st michaels 2091517 st michaels 2“Our athletic program is proud to announce the first-ever swim team this year and our volleyball team won the conference championship last year. There is lots to celebrate and to be proud of at St Michael Catholic School!

“We have amazing teachers that are committed to growing students educationally, socially and in the Catholic faith. Our teachers give their time and talent in many ways such as chairing clubs, serving as coaches and volunteering on special projects.”

The entire St. Michael’s community will be involved with the 75th anniversary celebration, which will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 14. There will be school tours, archive displays, a reception and a Mass at 5 p.m.

“We’re looking forward to having people here,” Levesque says. “It’s going to be a really exciting event, an indoor/outdoor event with kids’ activities. The alumni committee is putting a lot of hard work into it.”
For details about the St. Michael School 75th anniversary celebration, go to www.stmichaelcs.com/alumni.
— SueAnn Howell, Senior reporter

A shared history
Though more than 10 miles separate them, St. Michael’s Catholic School and Belmont Abbey College have a shared history in their founding – the monks of Belmont Abbey. St. Michael’s School, founded 75 years ago as of 2017, began, of course, with St. Michael’s Catholic Church. In about 1900 representatives of Loray Mill in Gastonia asked the abbey’s Bishop Abbot Leo Haid to build a Catholic church in Gastonia. The new mill expected an influx of northern Catholics to come to work at the mill and hoped the abbot could help care for the spiritual needs of the incoming New Englanders.

This spark was all the abbot needed and he set off on a fund-raising initiative to garner the funds needed to build the new church. The time was a desperate one for the still young Catholic college: a terrible fire destroyed two-thirds of the college building and the abbot was asked not only to start a new parish but to also be a missionary to the local Indian and growing African American community. He therefore reached out to his friend and relayed to his benefactor, Mother Katharine Drexel, the direness of his situation. On July 11, 1900, the future saint sent Leo Haid the $1,500 for the building of the Gastonia church and St. Michael’s was born.

By the early 1940s the Catholic community in Gastonia had grown so much that E.F. Gallagher, a good friend to St. Michael’s Benedictine Father Alphonse Buss advised the pastor that St. Michael’s needed a “Catholic education for its youngsters.” At Father Buss’s behest, the good sisters of Sacred Heart Convent in Belmont, volunteered to staff the school and sent two of their very best teachers, Mercy Mother Margaret Mary Wheeler, the first principal, and Mercy Sister Teresita Graham, who taught first through sixth grades. So began St. Michael’s Catholic School, with 22 pupils housed in a five-room house at York Street and Jackson Road, plus the basement of a home across the street for first grade – the humblest of beginnings.

With continued growth of the Gaston County Catholic community over the next decade, the needs for a larger school became evident. According to The Georgia Bulletin on March 27, 1947, “The Sisters of Mercy, who teach in the school, have so endeared themselves to parents and pupils that a waiting list is constantly maintained.” St. Michael’s little school was keeping families from moving elsewhere in search of a Catholic education but was in dire need of expansion. So in February 1952, under the leadership of Benedictine Father Gregory Eichenlaub, St. Michael’s Catholic School dedicated its new facility complete with classrooms, a library, a cafeteria and recess areas – a dream come true that continues to this day.
— Rolando Rivas, “Crossroads Magazine,” 2016