St. Nicholas Parish and School, nestled in the countryside among the cornfields of Sunman, is steeped in the Catholic faith and traditions. The parish was founded in 1836, and a one-room log school was constructed in 1859, reported Liz Lattire, director of communications and marketing for St. Nicholas and St. Anthony parishes.
In 1881, a brick school replaced the log structure, and eventually a one-room addition was added in 1953. With the school's continuing growth, two used temporary modular buildings, acquired in 1996 and 1997, added four classrooms. Generations of young Catholics have been educated in these buildings.
With an active parish and school, the current campus limited leaders' ability to expand school enrollment, foster a robust religious education program, build community life through fellowship and offer comfortable hospitality for visitors. After thorough research, it became apparent that the 1881 school building, two used temporary modular buildings, and the 1936 parish hall/gym were cost prohibitive to repair and maintain.
Initial efforts to raise funding for a new school building were the focus of the Legacy Project in 2009-11, which proved successful by a demonstrated support of parishioners. Several infrastructure projects were completed in recent years through the project's funding.
In 2017, after much preparation work and under the leadership of the pastor, the Rev. Shaun Whittington, the Heritage Project capital campaign launched a new vibrancy of support, according to Lattire. That continued commitment from parishioners and nonparishioners alike led to the reality of a ground-breaking ceremony April 29, 2018, for the new education center. At the ceremony, Whittington shared an insightful remark: “But think about the generations of students both in school and religious education who have been formed in the faith at this spot – a lighthouse on a hill, a beacon of God’s love.” He added, “It is amazing the heritage we have at this community of faith.”
“Heritage” is a key word as the parish has embarked on a two-phase master plan known as the Heritage Project, which focuses on continuing the Catholic heritage of faith, demonstrating strong Christian values, and promoting Catholic education, service and fellowship. They plan to accomplish this by enhancing their facilities and increasing accessibility to the parish and school through the creation of an education center and fellowship center.
The newly-built education center, which focuses on the children, is only the first phase of the Heritage Project. Through the generosity of many families and many prayers offered, $3 million of the $5.8 million master plan cash goal was achieved, allowing for Phase 1 construction to begin in 2018 and is now completed by local contractors Bruns-Gutzwiller Inc., Batesville. With this accomplishment, St. Nicholas continues to achieve new heights of academic success and prepare for the school's continued growth. The new facility includes nine classrooms, a combination library/music room, and a combination STEM lab/art room. The rooms will be used for St. Nicholas School, adult education, religious education programming and other parish activities. An office suite will bring together parish, school and religious education offices.
With the new education center being constructed, the former school building needed to come down. On June 11, the 138-year-old building, constructed partially by handmade bricks and rock dragged up from the nearby creek by current parishioners’ ancestors, was demolished.
But before demolition took place, it was only fitting that everyone who wanted to walk through the building one last time and bid their final farewell was granted that opportunity. On Sunday, May 12, “A Walk of Remembrance” event was held that drew a large attendance of parishioners, alumni, former teachers and principals and the community. Countless pictures were taken on the steps of the old school building as bittersweet sentiments filled the campus that day. Three and even four generations of families and friends browsed through old pictures, yearbooks and other memorabilia as former students shared and laughed about their golden year stories spent at St. Nicholas School.
Among alumni who attended was Kendra Hartman, who shared her day's experience by posting a heartfelt Facebook post which included a picture of her on the steps of the old school(pictured). Her post reads: “Enjoyed walking through the old school building one last time this morning back to where this friendship (with classmate and friend Brittany Bauman) was formed. So many fond memories of St. Nicholas ... I enjoyed looking through the time capsule biographies and reading what my grandma, sisters, friends and myself were thinking in 1999. So thankful for my time at St. Nicholas and all that I received there – this lifelong friend, numerous life lessons, instilled work ethic, humility, patience, kindness, and so much more. This place and community have always felt like a second home. So excited for the future of St. Nicholas. #catholicschool #wegrewuphere”
Former teacher Opal Yarber, who taught first grade at St. Nicholas School for 24 years before retiring in 2003, also attended the event. In a thank you card sent following the event, she wrote, “I have many fond memories from there, not only physical structures, but most important are relationships. I loved seeing former students and parents at the walk-through. The memorabilia was interesting. The new school has been needed for a long time. It looks nice and will serve the community well. Faith, time and effort of many brought this project to fruition.”
This has brought us to where we are today. It was a joyful, historic day Sunday, Aug. 4, as over 400 parishioners, alumni and community members gathered to celebrate and witness the new facility's blessing and dedication at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The ceremony included a building blessing and remarks by Archbishop Charles Thompson. Tours and a luncheon followed.
Lattire says, "The parish shares a deep sense of gratitude to God for this blessing and to the many donors who have supported this project thus far." Fundraising continues for Phase 2, which focuses on a new fellowship center, including a gym and cafeteria, which will house many school and parishwide activities, ministries, and large community functions. More information is offered at www.stnicholas-sunman.org.