After a century, school’s out for good

When classes at St. John XXIII’s St. Mary’s Campus ended last week, so did an era as Port Washington’s oldest parochial school closes

LONGTIME TEACHERS at St. John XXIII School’s St. Mary’s school building in Port Washington, Colleen Jentges (left) and Sue Krier walked out Friday with boxes of supplies they packed away from their classrooms. Unlike years past, the teachers won’t be unpacking in their existing classrooms but instead moving to new rooms at the school’s St. Peter’s Campus this fall. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Friday, like every other last day of school, the teachers at St. John XXIII School’s St. Mary’s Campus said goodbye to their students and began to pack up their rooms for the year.

But this wasn’t just any end of the school day — it was the end of an era. When these students and teachers left the school, it was for the last time.

After educating generations of students over more than a century, St. Mary’s School in Port Washington is closed. Next year, classes will meet in new classrooms being added onto the school’s St. Peter’s Campus.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Sue Krier, a 4-year-old kindergarten teacher at the school. “Every year we have to pack up, so I’m really not feeling bad yet.

“But once this stuff leaves my room ...”

Krier, who began teaching at St. Peter of Alcantara School in 1979 and moved to St. Mary’s when the two schools merged into Port Catholic School — today St. John XXIII School — is, along with second-grade teacher Colleen Jentges, the longest tenured teacher at the school.

“The building is old, but it has so much character — these hallowed halls,” Jentges said. “When you think of the generations that have gone to this school, it just has so much meaning to people.”

While she’s busy packing her classroom right now, Jentges said she will probably find a few minutes in the coming weeks to say her own farewell to the school.

“I’ll go there when no one else is there and reflect and say a prayer,” she said.

The end of the year has been bittersweet, the teachers said. Because as much as they will miss this historic building, they will be unpacking in new classrooms this fall.

“I’ll probably drive to St. Mary’s how many times once school starts,” Jentges said with a laugh. “It will be nice to be united as one campus. But I’ll miss the history. I’ll miss going across the street to Mass at St. Mary’s.”

Krier said that she’s grown accustomed to her basement classroom at the school.

“The temperature is always hot, and the windows are ceiling height,” she said. “But I’ll miss the quaintness, the character. It is a beautiful old building.”

But what she’ll miss most is something that has become a tradition in her classes — handprints. 

“Every kindergarten class I’ve had, and that’s a lot, began the year painting their handprint on the wall,” she said. “They line the halls — they’re everywhere.”

When the students graduate eighth grade, they return and trace their hand over their kindergarten handprint, she said. One student who taught at the school traced over it again when she began teaching, Krier said, as did alumna Genna Quentin when she took her first vows and became Sister Mae Thérèse.

“When the kids come to visit, they’re always putting their hands on their handprint,” Krier said. “I will miss the handprints.”

Jentges, too, mentioned the handprints as an integral part of life at the school. Her First Communicants often have their pictures taken next to the prints, she said, as did her niece on her wedding day.

“As simple as they are, they became very meaningful through the years,” she said.

The simple act of crossing the street to go to Mass at St. Mary’s is what she’ll miss most, Jentges said.

“I worry they (students) aren’t going to learn how to kneel,” she said.

The teachers aren’t the only ones who are dealing with the loss of the school.

Friday was “a very sad last day of school,” parent Melissa Didier said. “It’s just the iconic, classic school and now it’s closed.

“As a young parent, it was a dream come true to have this warm, wonderful staff and this beautiful building. It’s a really special place for us.”

Ann Ross, whose 12 children and many of her grandchildren attended the school, said she looks back fondly on the special occasions such as graduations and First Communions held there.

“I’m sure a lot of people who grew up in Port will be sad to see it close,” she said. 

Her husband Charlie was active in the school’s sports program and was a Scoutmaster, while she was a teacher’s aide and substitute teacher at the school, but she said the change is needed.

“I think you have to look at the good things, that we’re still able to have a school and a good one,” Ross said. 

  Marie Zirbes, whose affiliation with the school began when she was an eighth-grader there and continued through years working at the school, serving on the school board and now as a member of the school sale committee, said, “My heart’s always been at St. Mary’s.

“I went to school there, my brothers and sisters went to school there, my kids went there,” she said. “I have so many memories. There were so many good teachers, good principals there. There always was a happy feeling there.”

She recalled entering the school when there were 97 students in the eighth grade — about half the number enrolled in the entire school in recent years  — and nuns taught most of the classes.

“Now we had to do this,” she said of the campus consolidation and school closing. “The enrollment is pretty steady, but it’s not like years ago when we had 350 students.”

Through the years, the school has changed although its role as a center of Catholic education has remained the same.

St. Mary’s School has roots going back to 1853, when Father Francis Sailer organized classes that were taught by F.X. Weinhard, a layman.

In 1856, the School Sisters of Notre Dame first took on the school as one of its missions, holding classes in a rented building that also served as the convent.

But it wasn’t until the mid-1860s that construction of the first school building began.

In 1916, the parish began construction of a new, $65,000 school with eight classrooms, a library, office and auditorium. Classes were suspended for a year while the structure was built, with the 340 students returning to classes at St. Mary’s School on Sept. 4, 1917.

To again address overcrowding, the school was expanded again in 1952. It was furnished with desks and chairs built by the Wisconsin Chair Co. in downtown Port and donated by William Niederkorn, president of Simplicity Manufacturing.

The parish in 1962 bought 21 acres of land on the city’s north side, building what is today St. Peter’s School. It opened in 1964.

The two schools would consolidate to form Port Catholic School in 1989, which became St. John XXIII School after the St. Mary’s and St. Peter of Alcantara parishes in Port and Immaculate Conception Parish in Saukville merged.

And now, there is another change in store. While there will no longer be classes in the St. Mary’s School building, Ansay Development is working on plans to buy the school and nearby parish center buildings and create as many as 35 apartments in them.

As part of the plan, Ansay is seeking to create a historic district encompassing the school, church, parish center and the former rectory — now Anita’s Garden — and have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The fact the building won’t be torn down makes it easier to say goodbye to the school, many said.

“It’s kind of hard to see there will not be a school there anymore, but it makes me feel good that the building will continue and will be used,” Zirbes said. “That building’s going to have a purpose.”

Krier agreed, adding she is looking forward to seeing the changes in store for the building.

“I wouldn’t want to see it torn down. That it’s going to be used in a respectful manner makes it a little easier,” she said.

In the end, it’s important to remember that the school will continue, just in a different location, Jentges added.

“Through the years, we’ve created such a family of students and teachers,” she said. “We’ll just continue our family in a different building.”

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