Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

For 95 years, St. Michael’s School has been a gathering place for the lower St. Mary’s County community. More than 100 years ago, in the April 27, 1911, issue of the St. Mary’s Beacon, the following news item appeared:

A successful rally was held at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Ridge, St. Mary’s County, Maryland on Easter Sunday after Mass … to raise money to build a school and hall on the church premises. At that time, a committee of parishioners formed under the direction of the pastor, Father Abraham J. Emerick, S.J., and a large, two-storied wooden building was successfully planned and constructed.

The 95th anniversary celebration for St. Michael’s School started Sept. 25 with Mass and benediction beginning 40 hours of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. After its pilgrimage from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church to St. Michael’s Catholic Church, the school community celebrated Mass, benediction and the conclusion of the 40 hours of adoration.

On Sunday, Sept. 29, 250 alumni and friends filled St. Michael’s Church for 10:30 a.m. Mass. The Rev. Lee Fangmeyer concelebrated Mass with former pastor, Monsignor Maurice O’Connell. Deacon James Dominic and Deacon Bert L’Homme, Archdiocese of Washington superintendent of Catholic schools, assisted.

In his homily, L’Homme summarized world events and conditions during the period when the school was being planned and built — the Russian Revolution and World War I were taking place; women did not have the right to vote; and Benedict XV was the pope.

St. Michael’s Elementary School opened on the first floor of the two-story building in September 1918. The school had four classrooms with two grades taught by one teacher in each room. The building was heated by a wood-burning stove in each room, and drinking water was carried by buckets from a well in the schoolyard. In 1922, the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived from Hartford, Conn. The following year, the school expanded to include high school classes taught in St. Joseph’s Convent. Children from many neighboring districts attended St. Michael’s School, with some students boarding at the convent. The Sisters of St. Joseph continued to be present at St. Michael’s School until 1999, when Sister Mary Rita Cullison retired from her role as principal. The high school closed in 1967, but the elementary school was seeing its largest enrollments during that time, with the largest eighth-grade graduating class of 46 students in 1970. Current enrollment hovers around 160 students, which allows for small class sizes.

L’Homme finished his homily by commending Fangmeyer, Principal Lila Hofmeister and the teaching staff for being role models and for their commitment to the school’s students. He said that they have embraced the words of the plaque hanging over the entrance to the school, which states: “To all who enter here, be it known that Christ is the reason and center of this school. He is the unseen and ever-present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.”

The celebration continued as St. Mary’s County Commission President Jack Russell (D), a 1961 St. Michael’s high school graduate, took the helm as master of ceremonies for the presentation program. He asked the alumni to stand and remain standing while he counted back decades. Audrey Raley Norton and Sister Mary Rita Cullison were recognized for their 12 years of attendance and graduation from SMS high school in 1937. Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles) presented a proclamation of congratulations to the school, and other proclamations were read from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s). Debra Vallandingham Raley, 1968 grade school graduate, presented a $25,000 check to Fangmeyer from the Archangel Scholarship Foundation, which formed as a nonprofit corporation in 2009 to solicit donations, seek grants and oversee programs, such as the Cash Bash, to supplement tuition revenue.

In December 2008, the Archdiocese of Washington informed St. Michael’s School administrators that due to restricting subsidies from the Archdiocese, the school was on a closure list for the next year. With prayer, sacrifice and an outpouring of support from the community, the school raised the funds to remain open. Every year since, financial challenges have been met with continued prayer, extraordinary fundraising events and generous donors.

Following the church program, the party continued with a potluck luncheon in the school gymnasium/social hall, which was built in 1950, when the Rev. Merle V. Baldwin oversaw the replacement of the 1918 wooden structure with a cinderblock and brick school. For 65 years, the hall has accommodated festivals, receptions, roller skating sessions, dances, basketball games and school programs.

On this anniversary, the walls echoed with the sharing of memories and stories from back when. Tables lined the walls with newspaper articles, awards, plaques, student artwork and icons and photos from the past 95 years.