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St. Mary's school turns 150

Year of celebration marked with events, alumni participation

July 7, 2009

Ann Rauh shares a daunting task.

The 46-year-old Elm Grove resident has spent the last year helping track down about 1,500 St. Mary's Visitation School alumni. In honor of the catholic school's 150th anniversary, Rauh and a handful of other volunteers are initiating the first full-scale effort to reconnect alumni.

Fortunately, Rauh said, many past St. Mary's students have stayed close to the Elm Grove area, making them easier to find.

"It's a great place to be," she said of the community.

"You feel it's not a destination, it's a home. It's not just another place to live."

Rauh and her family are living examples. She and her husband, Jeff, decided to return to Elm Grove from San Diego so their nine children could attend St. Mary's. The decision made the family's children the fourth generation of Rauhs to attend the school.

School has frontier history

One of the oldest landmarks in Elm Grove, St. Mary's Visitation School began in 1859 as a one-room school for orphans and local children run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

The school's original site was part of the Convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, established by Mother Caroline Friess in 1855 about 15 years after the area was first settled.

According to church lore, Friess set out from Milwaukee along the Watertown Plank Road in search of a suitable site for a convent, rest home and orphanage in Watertown. When her horse balked near what is now the intersection of Watertown Plank Road and Juneau Boulevard, Friess took it as a sign from God. She purchased 20 acres from an early settler who later donated an additional 280 acres when his four daughters entered the convent.

Education has modernized

A lot has changed since then, Principal Lynn Ann Reesman said. The school still shares a connection with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, but St. Mary's is no longer an official mission of the order. The last nun to teach at the school retired in 2005, Reesman said.

The school facilities have grown and modernized. Teaching methods now focus more on the needs of individual students. Technology has come to serve an increasingly important role in the classroom.

Still, even while teaching the fifth generation of St. Mary's students, Reesman said, the school stays true to the original mission of the sisters: teach students to live their faith while pursuing academic excellence and learning to serve others.

"That heritage of pioneering women who had the foresight and the faith to just care for those who needed an education - care for those who were struggling in their lives - is just a wonderful root out of which to grow," Reesman said, adding, "I see a real consistency from our roots to our current time."

Quilt depicts history

To celebrate the school's storied past, Wauwatosa artist Suzanne Riggio was commissioned to research and create a commemorative quilt that traces the school's history. The project, partially funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Art Board, was painstakingly researched during the past 11 years using records from the parish, the School Sisters and local historians.

The quilt depicts previous school buildings and stained glass patterns that once filled the church windows, all against the backdrop of Elm Grove community history.

Riggio, who has nearly 20 years of quilting experience, said the project was the most complicated she has ever completed.

A year-long celebration

Besides commissioning the quilt, school and church leaders are joining with parish volunteers to hold special events celebrating the anniversary.

The year-long celebration began with a Mass on May 31 and will continue until May 28, 2010, when it will end with another Mass. In between, a number of gatherings are planned for alumni, school families and parishioners.

The first event will be an alumni barbecue planned for Aug. 1. Other events include a young alumni sporting event in January and a cocktail reception in February.

For information about the celebration events, call Molly Berens at (262) 797-8046.

FYI

The St. Mary's Visitation School Alumni Committee is seeking written accounts and photos from alumni for use in a 150th anniversary memory book. Past students willing to share memories of their favorite events and teachers can send them to alumni@stmaryeg.org or to the school at 13000 Juneau Boulevard, Elm Grove. Feedback from any era is welcomed, but the committee is especially short on photos from the 1950s through early 1970s.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: St. Mary's Visitation School alumni barbecue picnic

WHERE: School courtyard, 13000 Juneau Blvd., Elm Grove

WHEN: 6 p.m. Aug. 1, following 5 p.m. Mass

RSVP: by e-mailing Ann Rauh at arauh@wi.rr.com

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