Final Bell at St. Ben’s: Part of Strasburg History for 79 Years

Albasin, Ted. "Final Bell at St. Ben's: Part of Strasburg History for 79 Years." Emmons County Record, 16 May 1989.

When the final bell rings at St. Benedict Catholic School in Strassburg May 26, the book will be closed on the school’s 79-year history. The three students who will graduate on Friday will be the last class to graduate from St. Ben’s.

The old school will be sorely missed by many people in the area, including graduates of the past years and the students who will move into the Strasburg Public School system next year. But it will be missed most by older generations.

“The older generation, those in their fifties and sixties, are the ones who feel the loss most, said Sister Richarde Marie Wolf, principal and teacher at St. Ben’s. “And they are also the most verbal.”

Although Sister Richarde doesn’t feel that economics or a dwindling enrollment are major reasons for the closing, she does believe that it would only be a matter of time before those things became real issues.

“We’re still operating in the black,” she said. “We still have quality education, top notch teachers, and an ideal classroom situation where children get individual attention.”

But all that could change with lowering enrollment.”

During the 1988-89 school year, St. Ben’s had an enrollment of 33 in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Next year that would have dropped to 23 students.

“Interests in Catholic education has dwindled,” said Sister Richarde. “Young families just don’t see the value of a Catholic education as their parents did.”

The ultimate decision to close St. Ben’s was made by Bishop John Kinney of the Bismarck Diocese. A committee was appointed to consider the fate of several small Catholic schools in the diocese. According to Sister Richarde, she knew the school was one of those being looked at, she knew the Rev. Leonard Eckroth had some concerns as to the school’s future economic status. “He was concerned that if we continue to operate we eventually might not be able to,” she said.

Sister Richarde’s main concern was how the school would survive with only 19 families involved. Over the past eight years school families had been able to pay over half the school’s operating expenses through tuition and fundraisers, she pointed out. “And past patrons were also very supportive. That’s how we survived for 79 years. We couldn’t have done it without those dedicated families.”

Although the school’s closing was announced earlier in the year, Sister Richarde said the realism didn’t sink in until Bishop Kinny came to Strasburg in April for a Mass and dinner for the school parents.

“That’s when it really hit us,” she said. “When the parents and children were together and the children saw their parents actually shed a tear. I remember on second grader who stood behind Sister Rosemary, and saw her cry. He looked up at her and said ‘good-bye Sister,’ finally realizing the finality of the school closing. He still prays in class that the school won’t close. Children really feel it.”

One such student who will feel a deep loss when St. Ben’s finally shuts its doors is Marie Wikenheiser, a fifth grader. The daughter of Clarence and Nina Wikenheiser of Strasburg, Marie has attended St. Ben’s for five years.

Despite her young age, a Catholic education is very important to Marie, especially at St. Ben’s. “I like out teachers and we can have a Catholic education so we can learn to be better people and be nicer to each other,” she said. “We get to know what’s wrong and try not to do that. I think I would understand more if I stayed here.”

Marie says that her friends and classmates at St. Ben’s feel the same way about the closure as she does. “We wish it could stay open but we know it can’t.”

The things Marie will miss most next year are the Sisters, Friday Masses and religion. Highlights of the school year besides the Friday Masses are the Sing of peace in Christ, Catholic schools week, band, sports, Christmas programs and the Marian Year celebration. But religious training won’t be lost entirely to the children. The brick St. Ben’s building will be used as a CCD Center, where Catholic students will spend one hour a week in religious classes.

Following the school year, Sister Richarde will return to Dickinson. She has spent 13 years as a teacher, and principal for the last eight years. She will miss St. Ben’s and Strasburg. “This has been home to me, because in a small community you get to meet a lot of people. I’ve been invited to a lot of their homes.”

St. Benedict Elementary School has weathered a lot of storms in its 79-year existence, including the diphtheria epidemic of 1916, the Great Depression of the ‘30s, and declining enrollment. When its doors finally close on May 26, it will be missed by former students, patrons and friends. But it will also provide a lot of fond memories.

St. Benedicts opened in 1910

By Ted Albasini

Strasburg’s first parochial school opened its doors on Nov. 7, 1910, some six weeks before the completion of St. Peter and Paul Church. The first teachers were Ursuline Sisters whose Motherhouse was in Calveriensberg, Ahreveiber, Germany. Father Max Speckmeier was the first parish priest, and then the school’s enrollment jumped from 70 to 170 in six months. By 1913, 200 students were enrolled.

In 1916 the school was closed because of the diphtheria epidemic, but two years later a new brick building was built at a cost of $50,000. That building is the same one where St Benedict now holds classes.

Enrollment soared to 300 students by 1920, and a Catholic high school was started. That project was abandoned during the 1923-24 school year.

St. Benedict’s became an elementary and high school in 1930-31, but the high school closed in 1931-32 when Strasburg Public operated an elementary and high school. The school was hit hard during the Depression. In the years 1934 through 1937, the St. Ben’s Elementary School was in operation, but ceased to operate during the years 1937 through 59. In 1949 a new addition, which became Emmons Central High School was built to house St. Benedict’s Elementary School. In the school years 1960-61 through 1965-66 there was a St. Benedict’s elementary and high school in operation. Emmons Central High School opened in the school year 1966-67 and St. Benedict’s became an elementary school without any first graders.

During the 1980’s enrollment declined in many Emmons County schools, including St. Benedict’s. Since 1969 the school consisted of only grades one through eight.

In 1943 the Ursuline Sisters left St. Ben’s and were replaced by the School, Sisters of Notre Dame, whose Motherhouse is in Mankato, MN. The Sisters of Norte Dame are still at the school.

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