Saint John School in Jackson celebrated its 150th anniversary today with a visit from Bishop Earl Boyea who offered a Mass of Thanksgiving in gratitude for a century and a half of faithful Christian service. Ad multos annos! So, what’s the past, present and future of Saint John School? That’s the subject of a fascinating article in this month’s FAITH Magazine written by local Catholic journalist, Elizabeth Hansen. Elizabeth writes:
On Sept. 13, 1873, four religious sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), arrived in Jackson, sent by their congregation in Monroe.
Only two days later, they opened St. John School (SJS) to 200 students, beginning a legacy of faith-centered education for generations of Jackson students. This Sept. 15 marks the school’s 150th anniversary, a milestone that current principal Renee Hornby doesn’t take for granted.
“For me, carrying on the tradition of 150 years is looking at the foundation of who (SJS) is,” Renee said — and in a community like Jackson, that often means a literal lineage of alumni who came back to teach, or families who’ve sent children to SJS over multiple generations. Maintaining a close-knit, family-like environment requires staying connected to that history by “keeping our roots of … what we believe and how we teach it.”
Renee sees SJS’s rich history as a microcosm of the universal Church.
“We have a legacy of 150 years here, just like we have a legacy of 2,000 years of the Church,” she said. Things change, from physical structures — the original school building was torn down in the 1960s — to staffing, with the last, beloved IHM sister leaving in 1992.
What’s consistent, Renee said, is “our faith and our families as our focus.” She strives to continue to make SJS a place where parents know their children are “loved, getting a great education and being exposed to Christ in an authentic way.”
This school year, SJS has 170 students from kindergarten to sixth grade, plus about 30 preschoolers. Renee, who started as principal in the 2022-2023 school year, notes that in her years as an educator, she’s never been in a school so welcoming and willing to bring newcomers into the fold.
“Families come here because of that,” she said. “It’s not just something we say, it’s something that’s acted on.”
Examples abound of SJS families investing their time and energy into nurturing that environment: The Grandparents Club recruits older generations — some of whom don’t even have grandchildren in the school anymore — to take on teachers’ endless piles of cutting, folding and laminating projects, or to attend Friday Mass with their grandchildren. Family mentors connect with incoming families each school year. Among students, older grades partner with younger ones as prayer partners and reading buddies. It’s a hospitality that extends spiritually as well — nearly every year, Renee says, there’s at least one student baptism, or an entire family that comes back to the sacraments, evangelized by their own children.
Kristi Blair, who taught at the school for 31 years and retired last year after 11 years as principal, connects that level of involvement with a “deep love” and commitment by families to “making this the best possible place that it can be to help raise children of faith.”
She remembers a young boy who transferred into SJS in third grade after a rough start in a previous school. She’d talked to him, encouraged his grandparents (whom he lived with) and got to work.
“His first year was rough, the second year was better, the third year was great and the last year was way, way better,” she said. When he graduated SJS in sixth grade, he reminded Kristi of the question she’d asked him in the school chapel on the day they met.
What do you want from us? How can we help you?
To this day, Kristi remembers his answer: “Help me to be who I’m supposed to be.”
From the arrival of the first IHM sisters, generations of SJS families and educators have poured themselves out in faithful service of that mission: to help children become who God created them to be.
When it was time for Mike and Christina Olds to pick a school for their four children, Catholic education was their priority. Neither of them had gone to St. John School as children, but Mike’s parents, as well as Christina’s father and brother, were alumni.
“This was the place they needed to be,” Christina said.
The Olds’ firstborn started at SJS in first grade, and now Betsy Howell continues the legacy: her two oldest children graduated sixth grade at SJS, two are currently enrolled and her youngest child will start preschool at SJS in three years.
It’s “heartwarming” to see her children walk the same halls she did, Betsy said. Her parents now lead SJS’ Grandparents Club, which means the generations literally cross paths in the school halls (at which point “the kids will run out of line” to greet them, Mike said).
Christina thinks encounters like that both reinforce older family members’ pride of ownership in the St. John community, as well as ground children in a sense of belonging — “that they’re part of this special thing.”
“Every time a grandparent is in the building, there’s a connection going on,” she said. Her own father, Max, was a proud 1934 graduate of St. John’s then-high school and loved having lunch with his grandchildren during Catholic Schools Week. She credits his Catholic education there for his love of Jesus — belting out songs at Mass “even though he was somewhat tone deaf” —and sees that legacy of faith living on in her children and grandchildren.
For Betsy, that heritage at SJS has brought her own family into “closer relationship with Jesus and a more intentional parish life,” from encouraging parents to attend Friday Mass with their children to providing rigorous sacramental preparation in the classroom.
“Tradition and Catholic-based education are very important to our family,” Christina said. “We are proud and excited to be part of the multi-generation families at St. John's.”
• For more from FAITH go to: https://faithmag.com/