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January 29, 2017

Sacred Heart School celebrates 125 years

A sign for Sacred Heart School in Fowler. (Photo by Caroline B. Mooney)

A sign for Sacred Heart School in Fowler. (Photo by Caroline B. Mooney)

The mission of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana is to partner with families in providing a Christ-centered learning environment in which all persons can grow in faith and knowledge in order to serve God in this world and be eternally happy in the next.

By Caroline B. Mooney

FOWLER — Sacred Heart School is celebrating 125 years of Catholic education in Benton County.

The school opened its doors in 1891 with 65 enrolled students.

“The church and school have been here so long, many generations of families have come through,” said Father Peter Vanderkolk, pastor of Sacred Heart Church. “In the Church, we have the memorial of the presentation of Mary in the temple in November. Her parents presented her and it sounded like she spent a good amount of time there growing up. That’s like what our school does. Kids come here at a young age to spend time in formation, in the church, praying and learning about their faith, as Mary did as a little girl. The imitation of Mary is a good way to go.

“What we do here is different than in public schools,” he said. “We are a ‘Grade A’ school and give good academic formation. But we also pray, attend Mass, have sacraments and devotions. Walking though the school, you see religious symbols throughout. I like that.”

Staffed by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, the founding principal was Sister M. Ignatia, O.S.F., and the founding pastor was Father Anthony Henneberger.

When a new church was built in 1896, the old church was used as a two-room school. A new one-story frame school building was built in 1904.

Known as Sacred Heart Academy, tuition and board were $10 a month, plus $1 a month for washing done at the school. An announcement about the new boarding school on Sept. 3, 1909, said that small children were to be in bed by 7:30 p.m. and all other students at 9 p.m., with bathing and mending to be done on Saturdays.

There was room for 60 boarders, and the first year saw applications from Illinois, Iowa and other nearby states. Most boarders came from outlying farms in Benton County. Mud in the spring and fall and snow in the winter made many country roads impassable for weeks at a time.

A 3 ½-story brick building was built which served as a grade school, high school, convent and home for boarding students. A school dedication on Oct. 28, 1909, was the biggest local event of the year. Two hundred people arrived via train from Kankakee, Ill. Addresses were given in English, German and French. In the evening, the Hartford City Dramatic Company put on a play.

The boarding school was discontinued around 1926 or 1927. In 1930, there were not enough teaching sisters to continue the high school, and June 1930 saw the last graduating high school class.

The upper floor of the building fell out of use and was eventually removed. The building deteriorated over time and was razed in 1957.

A new Sacred Heart School was dedicated by Bishop John J. Carberry on Aug. 24, 1958. When the new school opened in September 1958, it had its first lay teachers. The Franciscan sisters taught until 1998.

Today the school has 91 students from pre-Kindergarten through sixth grade.

“There is such a family feel here, on top of the faith-based education,” said Principal Kristy Gross. Her husband, his brothers and her mother-in-law both attended Sacred Heart. “There is such great history here. This is a small community, but it’s very welcoming. Making the choice to send my own children here was easy.

“The community is great from the parishioners to all the students’ parents,” she said. “It’s so nice to have that support. My wish is for the enrollment to continue to grow. The students who go to Sacred Heart and transition in Benton Central High School do a fabulous job. I’ve been told that currently the No. 1 and No. 2 students in the graduation class at Benton Central are our alumni. Sacred Heart is able to provide a great well-rounded education to help students become successful adults.”

Bob Ponto has been school custodian for 20 years, since his father retired from the position. Before that, his uncle was the custodian.

“It’s been a great job,” he said. “I enjoy seeing all the kids, and knew many of their parents when they were students here. There’s a real family legacy throughout the school.”

A lifelong resident of Benton County, he attended Sacred Heart, as did his three daughters.

“The education kids get here is top of the line, and of course, I like that it’s a Catholic school,” Ponto said. “We attended Mass every day and I loved that we got Holy Days off and the public schools didn’t.”

In January of his first grade year, Ponto’s family home burned down.

“I was at school the next day, and have no recollection of where my clothes came from,” he said. “I just remember my family was given more stuff than we knew what to do with to replace all we lost in the fire. This place is like that. You know everyone. I am still close with everyone from my class.”

Sixth-grade student Ava Sayre said she likes Sacred Heart because everyone is really nice, “there isn’t any teaming up on anyone. I like the fun activities we get to do, like the cake walk, walk-a-thon, and chocolate bar sales. I like going to Mass because we can interact in Father’s homily, and interact with serving, reading and choir.”

Samuel Molter, a fourth-grader, agreed that everyone is nice at the school and “very helpful. The fourth-grade is just learning to serve today, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Pat Bess graduated eighth-grade from Sacred Heart in 1968, and works at the parish.

“I was new here in third grade and it was welcoming,” she said. “I loved my third-grade teacher, Sister Helen. Most of the girls in my class picked Helen as their confirmation name.

I loved it here and sent my four sons here,” Bess said. “I liked that they could be in a place where they go to church and learn about their faith. I used to work at the Benton Central High School, and they always referenced Sacred Heart kids as something special. They knew that kids coming from here were good students.”

Celebrations of the 125th anniversary planned for the weekend of May 19-21 include Bingo, a 5K race followed by a picnic and carnival, an alumni social, and a student-led Mass followed by breakfast.

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