April 12, 2024

By Marcus Ashlock

A Greek proverb states “a society grows great when men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” Much like today’s call to missionary discipleship, one may never know the impact they have had on a person’s walk of faith. 

We are called to live our lives in such a way that Jesus Christ can be seen through our actions and treatment of others. People may be watching, looking or even discerning their own beliefs, and one word or act at the right time may lead them to Christ.

“I see St. Mary’s School not as a tool, not a castle where the drawbridges are pulled up, but, actually, a beacon, a light and a place that says, ‘You know what, Lord, for your honor and glory, we are here,’” Father Shane Stevens, pastor and school superintendent at St. Mary Parish and School in Dell Rapids, said.

Faithful beginning

Originally constructed in 1910, St. Mary School in Dell Rapids was a project from the country’s expansion of parochial schools from the Baltimore Council. Six Presentation Sisters were the school’s first staff in the young state of South Dakota. That first year, students ranged in grades from first to eighth, with the intention of adding a new, higher grade each year until they were able to graduate their first class of seniors.

Father Shane Stevens delivers remarks during the blessing of the new school building. (Photos by Elise Heier)

For many years in the beginning, the sisters also cared for some students who boarded at the school. The sisters lived on the third floor and taught school on the main floor. The basement had a heavy drape dividing a community room and the original chapel.

“It’s always been strongly supported by St. Mary Parish,” Father Stevens said. “I think of the tenacity, the toughness and the faith of these Presentation Sisters, because to be a religious sister, and the way they observed religious life at that time, was no easy feat. Then to be teaching and caring for these students in the evening, feeding them, making sure they’re getting bathed, and all the things that children need; it’s quite remarkable.”

Over time, the original building expanded with the construction of the current church in 1951, and in 1957 the current high school was built. Due to the lack of structural integrity of the original school, it was torn down and replaced with a convent for the Presentation Sisters in 1964. There was a discussion before beginning this new school construction project prior to 2020 whether to drop back to offering education through the eighth grade or build a new school.

“When I arrived here in the midst of Covid in 2020, I met with this task force to look at the work that they had done; they were at that point where they had been meeting and meeting, talking and discussing, and discerning and praying,” Father Stevens said. “They needed somebody to say we’re at least going to go for it. I just felt in my prayer and my discernment and meeting with these people that they should be given the opportunity to have a capital campaign and see if people were serious about the school, that they would need to make a sacrifice and really step forward and step out and be generous.”

A leap of faith

Father Stevens and the task force began their own capital campaign, one without the help of a company or organization to run it, going door-to-door, phone call to phone call, and farm visit to farm visit, making more than 300 meetings in almost two years. By shaking hands, they gathered momentum to keep the pre-K through 12th grade curriculum intact as the congregation sought to keep this legacy continuing for future generations.

For the Dell Rapids area to have a full pre-K to grade 12 Catholic school in a town of fewer than 4,000 people is special. By comparison, Yankton, a town of more than 15,000, educates Catholic students through the eighth grade before sending them to public school. Today, there are 270 students enrolled at St. Mary School.

Bishop DeGrood blesses a part of the new building.

Father Stevens was inspired by the Magnificat in St. Luke’s Gospel, feeling that St. Mary School is to benefit generations to generations of families using this school’s campus, one inherited from generations past. The need for a Catholic school was now more relevant than ever, and the Holy Spirit wanted this to happen with the amount of funding raised locally.

“I just can’t explain it other than that it’s an act of God that some significantly large gifts came in, with some beautiful smaller gifts, and this coalition of the willing kind of came together,” Father Stevens said. “It has to be a God thing, because how else can a parish of our size pull together and raise a nearly $12.5 million school building up from a hole in the ground.”

Intentional discipleship

According to Father Stevens, fundraising and construction were the easy parts; building a culture of intentional discipleship will be the challenge. The intention is to create a space for the surrounding area to be welcomed and encounter Christ; to make the church and school a central hub for not just Dell Rapids and Baltic, but also Colton, Chester, Trent and even Garretson. The intentional culture change happens in the school’s curriculum and activities, but it starts at home.

“You can do that in a Catholic school because the faith is imbued, the faith is woven throughout the course of the day,” Father Stevens said. “I would say when the parish, home and school are all strong and working together, then there’s the real opportunity for discipleship. I would also argue, if you send your children to a Catholic school but then don’t support it at home, or don’t feel supported in the parish, then they’ll know lots of things about God, but that doesn’t necessarily transform their heart.”

Father Stevens states there is a desire for this Christ-centered educational experience to ensure students learn to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior, brother and friend and come to know Our Lady as mother, as well as see their guardian angels as a friend helping them along each step of their way.

“As with anything in life, they’re going to have all kinds of opportunities with athletics and academics and other activities, music, band, all that; but in the end, what I think is important is that they are intentional in their relationship with Christ,” Father Stevens said.

According to Father Stevens, God has been working in bringing so many things together throughout this project and for the future. For example, the dedication initially could not be scheduled as soon as the school was completed; it looked as if Bishop DeGrood’s schedule had no openings until February. Soon, an opening came for Jan. 4, 2024, as the students came back from the Christmas holiday.

“It was then I realized that day was also the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the patron saint of Catholic schools in the United States. I have her first-class relic on the altar and had prayed to her and St. Thomas Aquinas multiple times for their intercession and patronage through this experience,” Father Stevens said. “The fact that the day of thanksgiving, dedication and blessing was going to happen on her memorial feast was really quite providential.”

Students and teachers celebrate the new school building.

A few of the many donations received were from estate plans and the funds were given after a parishioner passed away. Someone listened to the Holy Spirit, prompting them to ensure future generations would benefit from their generosity; all the time knowing they may never live to see the new school built. 

Seeds of missionary discipleship sown in a faithful heart bear fruit for the next generation in need.

Dr. Marcus Ashlock is a former professor of agricultural communications and journalism and the former owner/editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper. A freelance writer in his spare time, he is a member of Christ the King Parish in Sioux Falls and a periodic host on Real Presence Live for Real Presence Radio.