St. Mary's School plans Sept. 14 celebration

On Sept. 14, St. Mary's Catholic School will celebrate its 130-year anniversary. To commemorate the event, a golf tournament will be held at the Sleepy Eye Golf Course along with a dinner and program at the church.

According to principal Mary Gangelhoff, many changes have taken place over the past 130 years, but the strong devotion to Catholic education remains as strong today as it was 130 years ago.

The beginning

In August 1878, Father Bernard Sandmeyer was appointed the first pastor of St. Mary's and under his guidance a parish school was built.

The first grade school was built in 1883. The building was completed during the summer and located on the northeast corner of the church property. The dimensions of the school were 60 feet long by 40 feet wide and two stories high containing four classrooms. The total cost to build the school, including the furniture and equipment was $3,000. Father Sandmeyer gave $500 of his own money to the fund.

The Sisters of St. Francis from Rochester staffed the school. They were young, having formed a corporation only five years before the St. Mary's School opened. Father Sandmeyer corresponded with Mother Alfred in Rochester, inviting the Franciscans to Sleepy Eye.

The Sisters arrived in Sleepy Eye in September of 1883 and the new school opened on Sept. 26 of that same year. There were 90 pupils enrolled under the direction of the Franciscans from Rochester, including Sr. Veronica who was the first principal serving the school until 1916.

The Sisters of St. Francis and the Franciscan order still remain in high regards to St. Mary's School.

"The Sisters lived a simple life on meager earnings, worked to bring the Good News to students, disciplined out of love and respect for others and our Lord and prayed for the many needs of our parish and school," Gangelhoff said. "In gratitude we are thankful for the dedication and belief in Catholic education and for the support they have given St. Mary's School." 


The first class to graduate at St. Mary's was the class of 1918. The first high school students moved from the "little red grade school" into the completed 20 room school at the beginning of the second semester of the 1914-1915 school year. Sister M. Lawrence was the principal at this time.

Over the course of time, it became apparent that a new building would again be needed. Seven acres of land was bought from Peter Geschwind, a member of the parish, for $6,500. The seven acres is now the site of the present school. The total cost of the new building and furnishings was $63,644.95. The cornerstone was blessed and laid on June 24, 1914. Some highlights of the new school were the basement that was divided into a large hall, two society rooms, a kitchen and lavatories. On the first floor there was a large study hall, five school rooms and a library with office space for the teachers. The second floor consisted of four classrooms and an auditorium.

Around this time a convent was built as a home for the Sisters that also served as a dormitory for boarders. Boarders from first grade through high school stayed there during the school year. About 400 students stayed at the boarding house.

After the building of the grade school, a new auditorium was ready for use in December 1939. It had a seating capacity of 675. The auditorium also served as the basketball floor. The old auditorium in the grade school was made into four classrooms. The present day auditorium has become the theatre arts building. Many musicals, concerts and Christmas plays have been performed on that stage.

In 1951, the high school wing was added to the school. This 60x100 foot structure cost $300,000. The addition consisted of two stories, a full basement and 30 additional rooms. An athletic field was also constructed at a cost of $8,000.

In 1988-89, the preschool, kindergarten and gymnasium wing was added. In 2000-2001, the family of Richard Mathiowetz was instrumental in building the field house. It offers an extra gym for practices and various other activities.

May Crowning

According to Gangelhoff, an important part of Catholic faith is the lives of the saints. The school's patron saint is the mother of God, Mary. The statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as other statues, are important permanent structures at St. Mary's Catholic School. Carrying on with tradition, the students celebrate May Crowning as they have done since the inception of the school.

"Although some of the details may have changed, it is still an important tradition at St. Mary's to celebrate May crowning," added Gangelhoff.

According to historian, school instructor and St. Mary's graduate, Lillian Stimpert, four boys all of the same size and height would carry the Virgin Mary statue, currently displayed in the first floor hallway of the grade school, in a specially designed frame, over to St. Mary's Church.

In the early days, grade school students would enter the church carrying flowers and singing hymns to Mary. An eighth grade girl, chosen by her classmates, crowned the Blessed Virgin. A first grade girl would carry the crown in the procession.

Today, students at St. Mary's continue to honor Mary during the month of May. At an all school Mass, the second graders process in wearing their communion outfits and sixth grade and senior students each carry a flower that is presented to Mary. Finally, a senior places the crown on the Mary statue as they recognize the Blessed Mother's role as "queen of Heaven and earth." 

Athletics at St. Mary's

Athletics did not become important until the 1920s, when Father Renz established football and basketball teams. Coach Ed Lenzmeier, a County Extension Agent, voluntarily coached the teams. In 1927, the football team had two wins, both over New Ulm, tied two games and lost two. In 1928, the basketball team won the consolation championship at St. Thomas College in St. Paul by defeating Waseca 15-14 and Winona Cotter 19-17.

Since then, the athletics program has developed into a full-scale program. St. Mary's currently offers football, volleyball, cross-country, tennis, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, track and golf. Sports teams have earned a total of 40 trips to the state tournament and hold several state championship titles.

Students have not only been recognized for their athletics on the field. The girls' basketball team was named State Academic Champs in 2006 and 2007, and the softball team was recognized in 2007.

Today St. Mary's offers a number of upper level courses through Southwest Minnesota State, Marshall, whereby students can earn college credits while still attending high school. There are also numerous opportunities for students to enroll in Honors courses or the Acellus Virtual School which allows students to take courses online that are not offered due to low enrollment numbers in class.

The past 130 years of Catholic Education have seen many changes and many opportunities throughout the years. Through the generosity of parishioners, loyal parents, alumni and local businesses, St. Mary's Catholic School continues to thrive and educate students to live and share in their faith.

For more pictures visit the Photo Gallery under St. Mary's 130 year anniversary.