by Nancy Schwerin
SUMTER — Four boys and one girl made up the graduating class at St. Francis Xavier High School. It was a graduation made possible by a very small group of Catholic parents.
In 1997 Sumter Catholic High School closed. After several years of trying to turn the declining enrollment at Sumter Catholic around, financial concerns caused Bishop David B. Thompson to close the school.
But the parents were determined to provide a Catholic education for their children. About six Catholic parents spearheaded the effort to reopen the school. At the end of the ’97 school year, the group rented an old elementary school building and spent the summer refurbishing it. With the help of parents and students and visiting seminarians and college students, St. Francis Xavier High School opened on Aug. 19, 1997.
“It was a collaboration of serious people who wanted to see this happen,” said J Cabot Seth, school supporter and founding parent.
With an enrollment of 32, the school was off the ground, but not running.
Seth, an exuberant supporter of the private Catholic school, said the parents and supporting community are OK with that. They didn’t expect a huge rush. Given the size of the community, he said, they are about where they should be.
This past year enrollment was at 49, and next year’s is currently at 46, but they are expecting more. Seth’s hope for the future is a steady enrollment of about 80 to 100 students. And he is confident that they’ll reach this goal.
Tuition covers about 80 percent of costs. The difference is made up through fund raisers and support from the Catholic community.
While the school’s budget is tight, Seth is proud to say they’ve met their budget each year.
In a community that is slightly less than 2 percent Catholic, Seth said the student body is more than 50 percent Catholic.
“Sumter is a progressive, forward-looking, open-minded community that sees its Catholic school as something that sets us apart,” Seth said. “There are a lot of things that make it feasible.”
He said they can’t compete scholastically in providing widely diverse courses, but they can provide a solid education in a Catholic setting.
Another plus for the school is Shaw Air Force Base. It is a main feeder for the school, providing faculty and students.
Seth said that the size of the school provides a unique opportunity for faculty to really get to know their students. It also enables the students to develop closer relationships with their classmates.
“What other valedictorian can say she graduated with her four brothers,” Veda Evans, 2002 valedictorian, said in her graduation speech.
In 2000, the school gained recognition from the Diocese of Charleston.
“Bishop Baker’s support has been extremely heartfelt from us,” Seth said. “We respected Bishop Thompson’s view, but we didn’t want that to be permanent. If we were outside the church too long, we’d lose that identity.”
As a private Catholic school St. Francis confers with the Diocese of Charleston only in matters of religious education. All curriculum, policy and other decisions are made independently by the school’s board.
“It takes a determined group to do it,” Seth said. “God blessed this community with the right group of people at the right time.”
This year the school board decided to purchase the building they were renting. They continue to make improvements with the ongoing support of parents and the community at large.
Dianne Trapini, principal, is in her first year at the school.
“I’ve come to see that this is God’s school. He’s steering the boat,” she said. “Every day we experience a miracle.”