Children and Youth

Sacred Heart School Turns 125

The Catholic school has played an important historic and cultural role in San Benito County
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This month, Sacred Heart Parish School in Hollister is turning 125 years old. Founded as a boarding and day school by four Sisters of Charity on Aug. 8, 1891, Sacred Heart was built to be a stronghold of Christian values in the newly-settled city of Hollister. Spanning the century-and-a-quarter of its existence, the school and church is embedded in the culture of the town; many of the mainstays of Hollister businesses and politics having passed through the doors of the school.

Today, while no longer under the direction of a defined religious community, the coed school still focuses on instilling in its students the Catholic values of its founders.

In 2016, a wide age range of more than 200 students attend Sacred Heart. Classes are available at the parish school for 3- or 4-year-old preschoolers up to eighth-graders. Differentiating itself from a private school, Sacred Heart is a self-described parish school, which “assists and supports families by providing an education infused with Gospel values."

The structure of the school and its classrooms has, of course, changed over time. The Sisters of Charity initially had it constructed to serve those in need in the San Benito County area; they focused on feeding the poor, and providing medical care to rural residents. These sisters were eventually replaced by the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, who hailed from Wichita, Texas. This order of Namur nuns worked and lived at the parish until the mid-1960s, by which time the diminishing number of women entering the nunnery, coupled with a shift in focus on the part of the school, prompted the sisterhood to return to their motherhouse in Texas. After their departure, the final religious group to be associated with Sacred Heart – the Dominican Sisters of Adrian – took over management. By 1992, the Adrian Sisters had also departed, and the school has been run by laypersons ever since.

Former student Jacklyn Thomas, 62, spoke to BenitoLink about her memories of the school and her experience with its changing structure: “It was very sad when the nuns left, but people entering the nunnery were dwindling, so they went back to Texas eventually. When I was [a student] there, we didn’t have an opinion – the nuns and priests, you did what they told you. The school has had different principles and strengths over the years. The nuns ruled the classroom with an iron fist – it was what it was, and what you paid for; I really wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“I graduated in 1968,” Thomas continued. ”I went eight years there. The school to me is like family. My own family is in its fourth or fifth generation at the school, including cousins and extended family. We’re not the only family like that. My parents went to school there; my mother started in first grade, and graduated in 1942. My parents enrolled me and my siblings there, and my kids attended Sacred Heart, too. It’s a way of life, and it’s great to have that family connection.”

Speaking about other changes since her time at Sacred Heart, Thomas elaborated: “When my mother went [to Sacred Heart] in the late 30s, I don’t believe there was tuition. When I was a student there, I seem to remember it being something like $50 per month to attend. [My family] made that a priority – a lot of people sacrificed a lot to send their kids to school there.”

Sacred Heart still charges tuition as a private school, with the annual rate currently set at $6,200 per student for grades K-8. An annual discount of $210 is offered to students whose families are regular parish attendees, who also receive admissions priority.

Thomas says, “Piano lessons were offered during the school day while I was a student there, and we had music classes every day that was taught by one of the sisters. I don’t remember any girls’ athletics from when I was a student there – only softball. We used to cheer for the boys when they had games, basketball and such.”

Today, boys and girls are given the athletic options of volleyball, soccer, basketball, coed track and cross-country.

School protocol for discipline has also shifted over the years, an insight that former principal Kathy O’Donnell discussed with BenitoLink. O’Donnell, who served as principal for five years, from fall 2002 through spring 2007, also attended Sacred Heart in her youth.

“Ah, discipline!” O'Donnell began. “Life was simpler in the 50s and family life was pretty structured. Being ‘bad’ then meant not raising your hand, talking out of turn, talking during a lesson, eating in class, interrupting a sister when she was talking, and so on. If we got out of line during class, Sister would call us to the front, have us stick out our hand, and then hit our hand with the wooden [ruler] they carried around.  If that wasn’t enough and we acted out again, we would get called to the front and hit on the back of our calves with a yardstick. This was worse for the boys than the girls, because the girls in those days wore full skirts with several layers of crinoline underneath which provided a pretty good buffer.  The boys just had thin pants or shorts so they got the welts!

“If we did something horrid, like writing a name on the wall in the bathroom, we had to ‘write lines’ during lunch, which meant we ate in the classroom, could not go outside to play and had to write 100, 500, or 1,000 times, ‘I will not write on the wall in the bathroom.’ That could get very tedious unless several students took part in the same ‘crime’ and then it could be fun because you got to chat with your friends while writing!

“The very end of the line was calling our parents. This happened very rarely because we all dreaded the thought, knowing if a sister telephoned, we would get at least twice as much punishment at home as we would have gotten at school." 

“In those days,” O’Donnell reminisced, “Hollister had a population of about 6,000. Mostly farmers, orchardists, and downtown merchants. The city itself was basically included in the rectangle between North, South, East and West streets — about four blocks by seven blocks. Almost all of us rode our bikes or walked to school. The few who arrived in cars lived ‘out in the country,’ which in those days meant more than a mile or two from downtown.”

“There was also a lot more ‘freedom,’" she said. "Some kids walked home for lunch, for example, there were no fences, surveillance fences or video cameras. We had no P.E. classes, per se, but ran and played on the various fields at lunch and recess — mostly without adult supervision. One nun was always there on the playground somewhere, but just one for the whole campus, as the others went home to the convent for lunch."  

As a principal, O'Donnell saw shifts in education, too.“Now, pretty much everything [in class] is based around interaction and discussion; students now sit in groups in the classroom. In the 1950s, teachers taught and kids listened, for the most part. There were no movies, CD’s, whiteboards, smartboards, or anything like that. We just listened to the teacher talk, took notes, and ‘practiced.'" She says about years later, when she became principal, ”I was amazed at how most everything was now based on test scores: scheduling, textbook selection, placement in class, special services.”

During the past decade, the school has seen even more advancements in tech and learning. Erin Gonzales, the current marketing and developmental director of Sacred Heart, explained the recent and extensive growth in the parish school’s tech structure, and what it all means for test scores and school performance.

 “Our bigger advancements started in the 2013-2014 school year,” she said. “We received a large donation from a former student who wanted to help with our tech goal. Our first annual Spartan Run also raised a lot. The run is in its third year now, and the kids are usually able to raise about $20,000 by participating. With these funds, we were able to buy iPad carts that are shared among all the classrooms, and incorporate more interactive technology, like smart whiteboards and projectors. Students can answer questions on whiteboards in front of the class that sync with the iPads and computers in the classroom, and so create a more communal learning environment that way.”

“We also have Mac carts now, too, instead of a formal computer lab. The carts can travel between classrooms and bring computers and iPads to the students as they need them, instead of each class needing to schedule time to visit an outside computer lab. Every student from second to eighth grade now has their own assigned iPad, and the kindergarten and Pre-K classes share amongst students. The sixth to eighth grades can take their school iPads home with them, to work on assignments there, usually within Google Classroom. Through the iPads, we also do a formative assessment, where the students will test three times a year. These digital assessments give teachers important feedback on where each student is positioned in the class, and a live snapshot of their progress in different subjects. Before these changes were made over the past few years, all of our testing and projects were done using pen and paper, or chalkboard. We still have a computer lab now, but because of the efficiency of the Mac carts, the lab will be retiring in the near future.”

“We have STEM classes now as well,” continued Gonzalez. “In STEM, students use the iPads to create graphs and charts for their projects. The sixth-grade class project last year was for the students to each create their own solar-powered car, which they then raced against each other. STEM classes started two years ago at Sacred Heart, and the program has grown so that now STEM is offered from eighth grade down to the fourth grade, at least once a week.”

Sacred Heart’s new principal, Dr. Rachel McKenna, is a large part of the school’s recent re-commitment to science and technology. “Dr. McKenna was a fourth-grade robotics teacher before she came to Sacred Heart,” Gonzalez said. “She’s also going to be starting a robotics program around September for our junior high students [sixth through eighth grade].”

For O’Donnell and Thomas, the school has gone through many eras, but the personal connections remain; friendships that started during their grade school years. They both say they appreciate the way they were taught, despite the many changes in approach that have come along with the passage of time.

“It was a good education,” Thomas reflected. “My grandparents came from Italy, and their Catholic faith led them to the Catholic school. My generation is still honoring my grandparents for their decision to get involved with Sacred Heart.”

Weekend Anniversary Celebration

Sacred Heart Parish School celebrates its 125th year anniversary on Saturday, Aug. 27. Mass will be held at 5 p.m., hosted by Bishop Garcia, at Sacred Heart Church.

Dinner is to follow at 7 p.m. at Sacred Heart Parish School. Dinner tickets are $5 and can be purchased in the school office or at the event. 





Dillon is an accomplished graphic artist. She has taken on a variety of roles at BenitoLink from running the social media and graphics for BenitoLink's 2016 election coverage to reporting on a wide of topics.