By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Citing his commitment to Catholic education for families in the Diocese of Juneau, Bishop Edward J. Burns spared no effort to keep the doors of Holy Name Catholic School open, despite floundering enrollment and declining interest.
As a result, Holy Name, nestled on a hill in the coastal city of Ketchikan, continues to recover, operate and slowly regrow.
“He jumped in when the school had numbers that didn’t look like they were going to hold up,” said Nicole Miller, who is in her first full year as principal of Holy Name Catholic School, but has been a part of the school’s parish as its youth minister since 2012. “He made sure that everyone in this community knew that Holy Name school was going to stay and that the doors were going to remain open.”
On a cloudy and rainy day in mid-January, Miller sat in her office at Holy Name, checking emails and reviewing the day’s agenda. Sitting with her was her 6-year old daughter Grace, who has been attending Holy Name since pre-school. Grace gave her mother one last hug goodbye before walking down the hall to class to begin her day. Miller said she doesn’t take daily moments like these for granted.
“Catholic education for my husband and I is a reality only because of this school,” Miller said.
When the Diocese of Juneau was erected by Pope Pius XII in 1951, three Catholic schools had already been established. But the closure of St. Pius X Catholic School in 1959 and St. Ann Catholic School in 1968 left Holy Name as the last remaining option in the entire diocese for families wanting to give their children a Catholic education; a major reason why Bishop Burns was determined to keep the struggling school open.
“A lot of people said ‘This school is going to close,” said Bishop Burns, who was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Juneau in 2009. “But inside I’m thinking ‘This school will not close.’ Once you close a school, you can’t reopen it.”
After seeing its student body grow to 115 in 2001, a steady decline in enrollment crept in over the years, Miller said. The numbers dropped significantly during the 2014 school year, after the departure of three teachers and many families. It eventually sunk to as low as 25 students.
In response, Bishop Burns commissioned a study on the feasibility of keeping Holy Name open. Despite the negative prognosis, Bishop Burns said he was undeterred, citing St. Paul’s letter to Timothy in which the saint exhorted Timothy’s community to “fan into flame the gift you received when I laid hands on you.”
“Even if that school was just going to be reduced to an ember, I think it is important for us as a Catholic community to fan that gift into a flame once again,” Bishop Burns said.
The school has since pulled its enrollment back up to 40 students, but without grades seven and eight.
Mark and Hillary Hilson said they breathed a huge sigh of relief when they heard the news that Holy Name would remain open. The Pittsburgh-area residents moved to Ketchikan in 2015, in part so Mark could accept a job as the city’s public works director. But, they said, the move would never have happened if a Catholic education were not available for their three children Noah, Quinn and Zachary.
“Our belief is that Catholic education forms the whole person,” Mark said. “It was critical for us.”
Also critical, he said, was Bishop Burns’ dedication to keeping Catholic education in the Diocese of Juneau.
“For us, he’s our St. Peter,” said Mark, whose wife Hillary is now on staff as the lead catechist for the school’s Montessori-based religious education program. “He’s the rock of this school. His support is steadfast. For us, what that meant was we were able to let our family grow in terms of our faith, volunteering and providing a good Catholic education for the community.”