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School built with donated nails turns 70

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Community came together to build St. Francis of Assisi, and still does
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo: Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, blesses St. Francis of Assisi school in honour of its 70th anniversary. (Photo submitted)

It’s been 60 years since Eileen Cole graduated from St. Francis of Assisi elementary school, but she still feels she belongs.

“I couldn’t believe it: when I walked through there, it was like walking home,” said Cole after a recent student reunion. “There’s no other way I can put it. The nuns, the school, the kids, it was always home. You felt warm. The nuns could be stern, but they were always really sweet.”

The school building, 70 years old this year, holds many memories for Cole. Her father, Percy Smith, helped Father Boniface Heidmeir build it in 1947.

Construction of the school brought the community together, especially in crisis moments. There were lumber, concrete, and metal shortages and carpenters even ran out of nails at one point.

Father Heidmeir put out a neighbourhood plea for nails of any size, and when the donated nails poured in, two men had to be hired just to straighten them for use in building.

Father Heidmeir donated his personal collection of nails (he was known for not setting aside a piece of wood without pulling out its nails and had accumulated quite a number of them over 15 years). With all the donated nails, as well as any that could be found in stores from White Rock to Abbotsford, the school was completed.

When it first opened, it had 72 students and was staffed by the Sisters of Charity from Saint John, NB.

Long-time teacher Josie Pauletto said barring a few upgrades, the school building hasn’t changed much since. “We’ve always come together,” said Pauletto, who began her teaching career at St. Francis of Assisi with a Grade 6 class of 16 students in 1984.

“We don’t have a gym but we’ve always found a way to provide for the kids” by busing them to nearby schools or community centres, she said.

Like Cole, Pauletto also feels a sense of belonging at the school. “It’s like family. We support one another,” she said. “It just feels like I’m leaving my home to come to another home.”

A handful of educators, including the school’s Kindergarten, Grade 3, and Grade 5 teachers, have been on staff for at least 25 years, a testament to the school’s tight-knit community, she said.

While the school hasn’t had many physical changes over the years, Pauletto has seen other developments during her 33 years there, including a much-needed uniform upgrade, increased parent involvement, and a stronger relationship with St. Francis of Assisi Parish.

The St. Francis of Assisi community was set to celebrate the school’s 70th birthday at the Italian Cultural Centre May 12.

“It’s really nice to celebrate with such a wonderful community,” said principal Jodie Sussex, who has been at the school five years. “The incredible history and pride that people have for the school, it’s amazing.”

Cole praised St. Francis of Assisi for not just giving her an education, but also planting a “seed of faith” within her.

“I remember (a) sister saying: ‘If you do believe, the Lord will give you that strength exactly when you need it,” she recalled.

“My faith is very strong. The faith that the children are getting now, it will take them through all the things they would never think they could do.”

Sussex said there are plans to rebuild the little elementary school so it can last at least another 70 years. The building committee estimates it will cost $12 million. The plans have not yet been finalized.

Photo: Vice-principal Anne Yam (left) and past principal Rosamaria Pietramala share a laugh with Archbishop Miller during the celebration. (Photo submitted)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 May 2017 13:29  

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