Catholic school on Alaska Island strengthened by family, community ties

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St. Mary’s Elementary School in Kodiak has a long and rich history by the standards of institutions within the young Archdiocese of Anchorage, which was established in 1966.

The little Kodiak Island pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school was established in 1954 by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, who began with 12 students and served until 2009. The Grey Nuns located their school in downtown Kodiak in a Quonset hut, and moved it to its present location following the 1964 earthquake and tsunami.

The little school is no stranger to earthquakes. Co-principal Brian Cleary, who shares his duties with co-principal Teri Schneider, said all was “quite orderly” during the November quake which hit the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Anchorage.

“The school is a ‘safe’ zone during tsunami alerts,” Cleary said. “No one felt the earth shake, but we all got tsunami alerts. We maintained order, invited parents in and put on the coffee. It was a great time to chat with some parents that we don’t see too often. I went to each classroom and briefed the children and teachers as events came in.”

Cleary pointed out that it was last January when a big quake hit the Kodiak area in the middle of the night.

“The earth shook here for over a minute,” he recalled, “and tsunami sirens wailed for hours into the night as we waited for a wave that never materialized.”

Just as last year, the school opened its doors to provide a safe spot for anxiety-ridden folks.

“Our role in the community has always been more than just a school,” Cleary said.

St. Mary’s, a mission of St. Mary’s Church, has long been a beacon of faith and community on the Island. When the Grey Nuns operated the school, enrollment grew to 200. But in the recent years, the school struggled with finances and enrollment. Today, enrollment stands at 74, nearly the same as last year.

When the financial situation seemed dire a few years ago, the entire community, not just local Catholics, rallied with support. Today, many school board members are non-Catholic.

“We have one first nation father who practices indigenous spirituality, one member who doesn’t attend any church, and one member, a school alumni, who just recently became Catholic. We are as much catholic as we are Catholic,” Cleary said.

Cleary added that he, Schneider and Father Frank Reitter, the parish pastor, “are very proud of our Catholic tradition. We emphasize daily the social justice themes that permeate our faith. We have close ties with the homeless, elderly and marginalized members of our community. With intention, our children interact weekly and monthly with these populations.”

Catholic Schools Week will be observed with Mass and charitable activities.

“Our culminating activity is ‘Brown Bag Lunch’ with parents and school supporters,” Cleary said. “The children create brown bag invitations for local dignitaries and other supporters. It’s fun and a great time to ‘show off.’”

Next year, Schneider will assume duties as full-time principal, transitioning from the shared position which she and Cleary have observed for the past three years. Cleary came aboard as an interim principal in 2013.

“Teri will lead the team through national certification and expanded opportunities for students,” Cleary said. “My role will be as a volunteer.”

This year, the new kindergarten teacher is Erin Cleary Mannelin, an alumna of the school. Not only is her dad principal, but she also teaches in the same room where her late mom, Kelly Cleary, taught third grade 25 years ago.

Mannelin said she has “memories in every inch of this school. I love working in a place that means so much to me and my family.”

Growing up, her school, parish, dad and mom, and then her stepmom helped her be “very well-rounded in my faith. We learned about God and how to be more like Jesus at school, and that is still how we teach today.”

This year saw the completion of a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse on the property, which is part of a “School to Table Lunch Program” which the board secured through a grant from the RASKOB charitable foundation. The harvest, said Cleary, will be shared with the parish, school and the local food bank.


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