Willow City had Private Catholic School
Solarski, Janie. "Willow City had Private Catholic School." Courant, 26 June 1984.
For students who attended the Notre
Dame Academy in Willow City, there was no debate over public versus
"The teachers were really good," Dorothy Cassavant, a
former academy student, said. "The students felt that they
got a good education."
"It was a good school," Father Roman G. Neva said. Neva,
who was appointed pastor of the Willow City, Notre Dame des Victoires
parish in 1947, said that the students usually graduated with between
20 and 22 credits rather than the 16 credits that was considered
average at that time. "The boarding students had a lot of supervised
study so they disciplined themselves well and probably learned more
than the average student," he said.
Monsignor Theophile P. Campeau, pastor of Willow City from 1906
to 1936, was responsible for building the academy. Land was donated
by the parish and the academy was built by the Sisters of the Presentation
of Mary, at a cost of $19,000.
The four-story academy was opened on Oct. 16, 1906, with an enrollment
of 75 students, 51 of whom were borders. In 1909, a new wing was
added on, and an infirmary and a furnace room were soon built in
As enrollment increased, so did the curriculum. A four-year high
school course was introduced, along with music and Home Economics
departments and a three-year commercial school that included typing
and bookkeeping courses.
By 1915, enrollment included 115 boarders and 100 day students.
In 1961 enrollment was 190.
When the academy first opened there were five nuns who taught and
kept the academy running. With the addition of the high school,
that number increased to about 13.
Neva said the nuns raised a limited amount of livestock. They had
their own chickens and a couple of cows. They also had a garden
and they did all of the cooking.
Students were never refused enrollment because of financial problems.
"When they couldn't pay for tuition they would help out with
the chores," Neva said.
Neva said the percentage of out-of-town students was a little over
half the enrollment. Cassavant said there were students from all
over, such as Minot, Williston, Westhope and Drake.
Leah Bergeron's six children were educated at the academy. "They
lived there five days a week. On weekends we got them home,"
In 1947, tuition and board was $27 per month. In 1968, the last
year the school was open, it only costed $34, Neva said. "They
just charged enough for the nuns to get by and for expenses for
the school," he said.
Although it was very cheap, Bergeron said, "It still was a
lot for us to pay it all with cash. To help pay for the children's
keep, we used to sell them beef, potatoes, and hay for their cows.
Some of the boarders that were too far from home to leave on weekends
would get part-time jobs helping in the kitchen to help pay their
Sister Albert Marie, the first grade teacher, was the favorite
of everyone, Cassavant said. "Because the children liked her
so much they didn't want to pass first grade."
Neva also said she was an excellent teacher. "There was no
kid that wasn't able to read, write or spell when they finished
her first grade class," he said.
Ourore Duff, Cassavant's mother of Willow City, said that the nuns
were very strict during the first years of the school. "You
couldn't even talk to each other. The boys and girls had separate
dining rooms and play yards. Later on they weren't quite as strict,"
Bergeron said that the nuns' bedrooms were on the first floor,
but two of them had bedrooms on the dorm floor. Cassavant called
them "guard rooms where the nuns slept to separate the sexes."
Neva just said, "There was none of that going on. At least
I didn't know about it."
Basketball was Notre Dame Academy's only sport, and when Neva arrived
in 1947, he became the coach until the school closed. They had no
gym and Neva said the Willow City High School would not allow them
to use its gym. So they had no place to practice until 1953 when
the Barton School allowed them to practice on its gym floor.
Neva expected good conduct from his players. "I insisted upon
that, otherwise there was no reason to be there," he said.
Cassavant said they often won the good sportsmanship trophy. "Notre
Dame never won anything, so they were sure to win this trophy,"
Neva said that competitiveness is hurting sports today. "Wanting
to win and always be No. 1 destroys the whole idea of the game,"
Neva said the nuns took in a number of youngsters that had a little
brush with the law. "They needed a little guidance and they
turned out fine. Basically, they were good kids but they just got
in with the wrong group of kids," he said.
Neva said there were no real discipline problems. "Not until
the '60s, anyway. Maybe it was a good thing that the school closed.
Maybe it was providential because of the developing drug culture.
We didn't know what we would have done with the boarding school
if it would have become a problem."
He said the academy closed down because Valley City needed extra
teachers for their Catholic school. "And since Notre Dame couldn't
afford to hire lay teachers they had to close." Also, the academy
needed many repairs. After it closed it was sold then torn apart.
Neva, who was born in 1908 in Courtney, ND, had his first parish
assignment in Westhope in 1940. In 1947, he came to Willow City
and served the parish until 1970 when he became pastor at Saint
Cecilia's Catholic Church in Harvey, ND.
Neva says he looks back with fond memories. "We closed in
good grace and with not too many problems."
Notre Dame Academy
in Willow City.
Reprinted with permission of the Courant.