With only 29 students, Catholic school in Montrose, Mo., hangs on

A few of the 29 students of St. Mary School, left the two-story building and went next door to the Immaculate Conception church for a play rehearsal in preparation for an upcoming production at the church.
A few of the 29 students of St. Mary School, left the two-story building and went next door to the Immaculate Conception church for a play rehearsal in preparation for an upcoming production at the church. jledford@kcstar.com

The bell tower of the old Catholic church rises above all else in this tabletop-flat town.

Children head that way these cold mornings, just as they have for generations to the red brick St. Mary School next door.

Just not as many these days.

Meet the eighth-grade class — his name is Brendon Engeman. He’s 13, tall and gangly, gets up in the dark to feed hogs, and now he’s starting to think about what he will say when he gives the class graduation speech in May.

Keeping St. Mary open will be a likely theme. His dad and other relatives went there. He loves the place, even if there are no sports or band, and he has to tutor the younger kids, including his two brothers.

“I have cousins who go to big schools and have 600 in their grade, but they say they only know about 15,” Brendon said during a break in class. “I know more than that here ... I know everyone.”

That would be 28 students, prekindergarten through eighth grade, not counting himself.

Economic hard times challenge private schools no matter where they are. But for St. Mary in Montrose, about 80 miles southeast of Kansas City, keeping the doors open might be about as tough as it gets.

Father Tom Hermes, who is the principal of St. Mary School in Montrose, Mo., has a total of four classrooms with 29 students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Hermes has to take on many different types of responsibilities at the scho

The coal mines have played out. Families have moved away. Young teachers aren’t clamoring to come to a town of 384 people. The Great Recession took its toll. And guess what — kids want to play sports, and St. Mary doesn’t even have a P.E. teacher.

Older students lead the younger ones in calisthenics — outside when it’s nice, in the lunch room when it’s not.

But this school, open since 1915, won’t go gently into the night. Along with the church, Immaculate Conception, the school is the heart of a Catholic community rooted in coal fields and farmland of Henry County. Some early residents arrived in Montrose by orphan train. Older folks say the earliest settlers were “ruffians” shunned by other towns.

Nearly every student talks of Mom, Dad, Grandpa or Uncle Somebody going to St. Mary. That’s why more than 200 people showed up recently for a smoked meat fundraiser.

And, for the first time, an organization designed to help inner-city schools in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is reaching out to this little school on the prairie.

Most of all, though, the school has a “fixer.”

Father Tom Hermes, the principal, has a reputation for fixing small, rural Catholic schools. One he arrived at had been recommended for closure. A few years after he left, it added a classroom.

He’s a man of accomplishment, and contradiction.

Hermes, 59, grew up a city kid but has spent most of his adult life surrounded by cornfields. He’s well over 6 feet tall, a tad girthy — elementary school stew and biscuits will do that — but his school office measures only 3 by 7 feet.

The sign above the door says Furnace Room. From the doorway, it looks like a heating duct is coming out of his computer.

Metaphorical symbolism perhaps. Because if this building stays warm in winters to come, the heat may come out of this guy’s brain.

He downplays his savior role. Just a squeaky wheel, he says.

“I’ve been squeakin’ for 22 years.”

Keeping schools like St. Mary open isn’t about fiscal sense.

“It’s about believing in something — a value, and these people are sacrificing for it,” said Pat Burbach, associate superintendent for the diocese.

Some inner-city schools have closed in recent years, but aside from the school in Axtell, Kan., the others in small, rural towns in the region remain open. They exist in those few rural pockets where Catholics settled in the 1800s.

“It’s about who got off the train where,” Burbach said. “And schools like the one in Montrose hang on.

“It’s grit.”

Jackie Cook stood in the yard of her little house catty-cornered from the school and looked across toward the bell tower.

Her granddaughter teaches there now.

“It’s part of who we are,” she said. “I put eight kids through there. And I cleaned the place for 22 years. It means so much to us, and when you lose it and it’s all done — what do you have?

“What do you have left to be proud of?”

Mike Henzlik, an architect, sees all angles.

He went to St. Mary, like many of his relatives. His son attends now, as did his daughter before she graduated and then, like most others, went to Montrose High. Henzlik served on the public school board and his wife, Michelle, works as a counselor at Clinton Intermediate School.

“I strongly believe in Christian education, and this school is my heritage,” Henzlik said in the basement cafeteria, the smell of homemade doughnuts in the air. “I think kids around here will lose something if it closes. We all will. Kids leave here with something special.

“But when Peabody Coal (now Peabody Energy) shut down, so many families left it and changed everything.

“I think it’s going to be hard going forward.”

That’s when eyes look to Hermes, who serves as pastor at Immaculate Conception next door and St. Patrick Parish in Butler.

He graduated from high school at St. John’s Seminary in 1974 and has worked at parishes in Kansas City, St. Joseph and rural Missouri towns including Clinton, Osceola, Windsor and Chillicothe.

When he left St. Columban Catholic Church in Chillicothe in 2011, the parish newsletter told how he had resurrected Bishop Hogan Memorial School back to educational prowess and said he was being transferred “to another community in need of his assistance.”

That would be St. Mary.

“I’ve been typecast in that role, I guess,” Hermes said. “This is my biggest challenge yet.”

Besides being principal, he teaches, hands out milk at lunch, scrapes plates, shines floors and tends flower beds. He gets a pass on discipline, though. Never comes up, he said.

Since he arrived, enrollment has dropped from 39 to 29. Some students come from other towns, including one from Rich Hill, 35 miles away.

Hermes’ plan to stop the bleeding is to no longer offer seventh and eighth grades.

Some parents didn’t like kids being grouped three grades to a classroom, but the arrangement was necessary with only four teachers for prekindergarten, kindergarten and eight grades.

Hermes thinks the change may draw families back. It wouldn’t have mattered much this year anyway. The school has just the one eighth-grader and no seventh-graders.

But finding teachers will probably remain a problem. Not long ago, he posted a job opening in a national publication.

“Didn’t get so much as a hello,” Hermes said.

A key boost this year, however, has come from the Bright Futures Fund, which helps families pay for tuition.

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph started the effort in 1989 to assist inner-city parishes struggling to keep their schools open. For years, it was called the Central City School Fund and over time paid out $38 million to help more than 27,000 students.

At the end of January, Bright Futures announced that it would close two of its schools, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and move those students into a new school in the former Derrick Thomas Academy at 201 E. Armour Blvd.

Expanding to rural areas became an obvious decision.

“The face of poverty has changed,” said Jeremy Lillig, managing director of Bright Futures. “The school in Montrose is an incredible legacy, and we’re trying to help.”

The fund provided $5,000 to St. Mary this year. That may not sound like a lot, but consider the annual tuition is $950.

That’s for an entire family.

At midmorning, Gladys Kalwei cooked stew in the school’s basement cafeteria.

One big pot will do the whole bunch.

Upstairs in Debbie Mitchell’s classroom, students rehearsed for a play. She teaches grades three, four and five. That’s seven students. Not quite a one-room school, but there are similarities.

“We do a lot of peer tutoring,” Mitchell said.

For 30 years, she taught junior high math in public schools. It was fine, she said, but there’s something about having the same kids all day long.

“I like it better now,” she said, smiling. “These are my kids.”

High noon brings lunch time. The kids come down the wooden steps. Not exactly a horde.

Kalwei, who also runs a bed-and-breakfast in an old convent in nearby Germantown, serves up the stew.

“It’s hot, don’t tip your plate,” she tells the little ones.

Brendon doles out warm biscuits and applesauce. Hermes hands out milk.

Want the real story on this school? Head to the big kids’ table. There’s room.

The school’s not perfect, they said.

For example, the playground could use added attractions.

“A slide would be nice,” said Matthew Cooper, a fourth-grader.

“And there’s no school newspaper,” said fifth-grader and budding writer Maggie Toppass.

But then they talk about family members who went to the school before them. They don’t want to be anywhere else. They like that it’s small. And when they graduate and most of them go to Montrose public school, that will be fine, too.

Hey, they know the Montrose High Lady Jays went 31-0 and won the Missouri class 1 basketball championship in 2010.

No, St. Mary doesn’t have sports teams or pass out fancy tablets. Actually, the school could use updated textbooks.

But people here, big and little, talk more about what they do have than what they don’t.

It is a story for the generations, told along a path of years leading to a bell tower that rises above all else.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

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