St. Joseph School celebrates 50th anniversary

Bill Brewer News

THE GOOD OLD DAYS St. Joseph School is celebrating their fiftieth anniversary in November. The 1963 second-grade class is pictured here. Courtesy of St. Joseph School

THE GOOD OLD DAYS St. Joseph School is celebrating their fiftieth anniversary in November. The 1963 second-grade class is pictured here. Courtesy of St. Joseph School

A North Knoxville school founded by Father Albert Henkel, “the pope of Happy Hollow,” turns 50 this year and plans are under way to mark the milestone.

St. Joseph School, established in 1963, is celebrating its golden anniversary in several ways. One way to observe the anniversary is having each class work on a timeline from 1963 to 2013.

“Each class has a decade,” said the principal, Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann McCullough. “They’re researching what was going on in the world during that time and what was going on at St. Joseph School. Some of the classes have had former principals come in, and they’ve interviewed them and asked questions. They’re collecting pictures, so they’re learning the history of the school.”

And a major anniversary event is on tap.

“We’re planning to have a big reunion celebration in November where Bishop [Richard F.] Stika will come and celebrate Mass, and we’re hoping to have as many alumni and former staff come as possible,” Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann said.

At the time it was built, St. Joseph was one of five Knoxville-area Catholic schools. There now are 10 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Knoxville, stretching from Chattanooga to the Tri-Cities.

Rita Cook, a learning specialist at St. Joseph, was a member of the school’s first graduating class in the 1960s. Individual classes were bigger in her student days, she recalled.

“When we first started here there were over 300 students,” she said. “The classes were much larger; it was only grades one through eight. We did not have a kindergarten, of course. There was one grade for each class, and so the classes had 30, 40, sometimes 50 students, so that’s a major difference from when we first started.”

The dress code was different then too, she said.

“When we started, the girls only wore uniforms; the boys did not have uniforms. They wore nice shirts and pants to school, but the girls in the younger grades wore a navy blue jumper with a white blouse, and we had little navy beanies that matched. When you got to the fifth grade, you looked forward to that because you got to wear the skirt instead of the jumper. It was navy blue.”

Sisters of Mercy were a common sight at St. Joseph, said Mrs. Cook, who was Rita Dunn as a student.

“The principal, Sister Mary Leonella, was also the eighth-grade teacher. We always had four, sometimes five Sisters of Mercy, so there were at least as many if not more sisters than lay teachers then.”

Mrs. Cook said that Father Henkel was also a frequent sight at the school he founded.

“Of course, he was here for Mass every day, and then he usually stayed,” she said. “He did all the painting, he mowed the grass, he did all the maintenance, so we were very used to seeing Father Henkel throughout the day. And when we were doing our lessons, if we looked outside and saw him on the lawnmower, sometimes he’d wave to us, and we went right on with our lessons. So he was very much a part of the school. It was very close to his heart.”

Older grades received a bonus courtesy of Father Henkel, Mrs. Cook said.

“Father sponsored a swimming party for the fifth through eighth grades. He would drive the bus himself and took us all out to Concord Swimming Pool, and everybody got a dime so you could buy a Coke for lunch that day, so it was a big treat in those days.”

Sister Mary Bernadelle, RSM, followed Sister Mary Leonella and started the first field day at St. Joseph, Mrs. Cook said.

“She started a lot of the activities like that, so it kind of grew under her principalship.”

Mrs. Cook said she has “good memories” of her student days at St. Joseph.

“I’m the oldest of nine children. My brothers and sisters went here and graduated from here, and our family was not unusual. A lot of the families were large families. The Pickerings had eight children here. The Chandlers had 13 here. The biggest one I remember is the Hurley family: there were 14 children in that family.”

Many of those people “who helped build the school and had a vested interest are still involved here with the school,” Mrs. Cook said.

St. Joseph School began its life as Holy Ghost School in 1908, opening one year after Holy Ghost Parish was established. Holy Ghost School eventually occupied the old Holy Ghost Church next door to the current church. In fall 1963 the campus moved to its current site at 1810 Howard Road. The name was changed to St. Joseph School because at that time it was thought that a St. Joseph Parish would be established. But the Catholic population moved west in Knox County, and the parish was never established.

In 1970 came the closure of St. Mary School in downtown Knoxville, next door to Immaculate Conception Church, and many of its students joined the children at St. Joseph School, which is located in the Fountain City area, six miles north of Holy Ghost.

Father Henkel served 38 years as pastor of Holy Ghost, which is in the Happy Hollow area of Central Street near downtown Knoxville. He passed away in December 1996.

St. Joseph was made a regional school in 2011 “because we serve so many different parishes: students from nine different parishes, primarily from Holy Ghost, Immaculate Conception, and St. Albert the Great,” Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann said. “The hope is that with the regional school, it wouldn’t be on one parish to support it. There would be a broader support base for the school.”

The principal said there is “kind of another way of celebrating the 50th anniversary” of St. Joseph.

“We have been growing in the past few years, and we are outgrowing some of our areas,” she said. “We hope to break ground in the spring next year for a new technology library area. It will extend the primary wing out toward the gym and the performing arts center.”

Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, superintendent for diocesan schools, said St. Joseph joins the nine other schools serving the diocese in doing an outstanding job providing students with a quality Catholic education.

“Congratulations to St. Joseph School on its golden anniversary. What a great milestone in the life of this excellent diocesan school, which has served Catholic communities in North, East, and South Knoxville so well for 50 years,” Sister Mary Marta said.

“God has blessed the Diocese of Knoxville with St. Joseph and its history of outstanding staff, students, parents and volunteers as well as the priests and sisters who have helped lead it. We are grateful to Father Leo Baldinger and Father Albert Henkel for their Catholic education vision and look forward to that vision continuing for the next 50 years,” she added.

St. Joseph currently has 207 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Sister Mary Elizabeth Ann said the school is “in very good shape.”

“I think there’s a very enthusiastic group of parents who are very involved,” she said. “We have a phenomenal staff and a wonderful group of students.”

She said she school’s role is “to serve as many families as we can in the greater Knoxville area, but primarily in the northern part of Knoxville, to provide a support for parents, and to be a strong Catholic presence.”

St. Joseph School “is very near and dear to my heart,” Mrs. Cook said. “My children graduated from here and some nieces and nephews, so our family has remained a part of it, too.”