Originally created 09/27/03

School will mark 90th anniversary, feast day with Mass



Franciscan Sister Margaret Mary Mohr, principal of Immaculate Conception Catholic School, has watched construction workers update her corner at Laney-Walker Boulevard and 11th Street for months.

Her hope is that their last project, a new sidewalk along Laney-Walker, will be finished in time for the school's 140 pupils to hold a procession at 8:45 a.m. Thursday before a special Mass at 9 a.m.

The Mass has a dual purpose: to honor her order's 13th-century patron, St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is Oct. 4, and to celebrate the historically black school's 90th anniversary.

"How many places can say they have been around for 90 years? And there are still sisters here. We can't say there will be sisters here at the 100th," she said. At 53, she is one of the youngest within her 300-member order, the Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception, based in Newton, Mass.

In 1902, a colony of sisters opened an orphanage a block away, at 12th Street and Laney-Walker Boulevard. Called St. Benedict's Home, it cared for black children.

When the African Mission Fathers built Immaculate Conception Church in 1913, they invited the Franciscans to bring the orphans and staff the school. A high school was added about five years later with the first class graduating in 1923.

Former pupils, including conservative commentator Alan Keyes and Augusta commissioners Willie Mays and Lee Beard, remain loyal to Immaculate Conception. Most families hear about the school by word of mouth from friends or family, she said.

One of this fall's first-graders represents the fourth generation of the family to attend Immaculate Conception. Her "great-grandmother was a student here in 1913. Her grandfather and her uncles went here," said Sister Mohr, who sees her former religion and language-arts pupils from the 1980s now picking up their own children at the school.

"People want something different for their children. They contact us. We test (the children). We want to give every child an opportunity. If they will work with us, we will work with them," she said.

The school's mission is to provide a private Christian education for children who might not otherwise be able to afford it, she said. "The problem is we still have to pay our bills."

One of out of three children enrolled receive some financial aid toward the annual $2,600 tuition. The school distributed $67,000 in aid this school year.

Churches, alumni and private donors contribute support through financial gifts and volunteer efforts. A development director and council also work to come up with needed funds. Sister Mohr said the school also plans to apply for grant money.

"In the short run, vouchers could benefit us, (but) in the long run," it is less clear, Sister Mohr said. "Our tuition is low compared to other private schools in the area - it is amazing that we do what we do with the tuition that we get."

Third-grade teacher Ethel Jones remembers her grade-school years at Immaculate Conception as no-frills. What helped her succeed was the school's emphasis on language arts, she said.

Children then couldn't "answer questions with 'yes/no' or a multiple-choice answer. You had to answer those questions with sentences," said Mrs. Jones, who teaches today in her old fifth-grade classroom.

Then and now, pupils take religion. "That gave you a background in what is right and wrong. (It) made you think with a conscience," Mrs. Jones said.

Enrollment is about 15 percent Catholic and the rest mostly Baptist. "We are very ecumenical," Sister Mohr said, but people understand when they come that they are going to learn about the Catholic Church.

Pupils from fifth grade on up have a personal Bible and study Old and New Testament. "What we try to do, basically, is have the children put into practice what they learn in religion," she said.

Morning muster in the school yard includes prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance over a loudspeaker before lines of children walk to class.

On Thursday, Immaculate Conception's campus buildings will also be blessed "for the next 90 years," before pupils enter the circa-1959 gymnasium for mass.

Sister Mohr dreams of new classroom buildings with corridors to hang the children's work and where they won't "have to come out(side) for everything," she said.

For more information, call 722-9964 or see the Franciscan Web site at www.mficusa.org.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: 90th anniversary mass

WHERE: Immaculate Conception Catholic School, 1016 Laney Walker Blvd.

WHEN: 9 a.m. Thursday; procession 8:45 a.m.

PHONE: 722-9964

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.