The Nov. 30th earthquake that rattled Southcentral Alaska did little damage besides some broken glass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Elementary School in South Anchorage.
Unlike most public schools in the area which closed for a week, the pre-kindergarten through sixth grade school was only closed through the following Monday. But a lack of physical damage didn’t allay anxiety that lingered in little hearts.
When school resumed, first — grade teacher Lisa Orizotti brought holy water to her classroom. She told students, “If you’re feeling afraid, just come up and dip your fingers in the water and bless yourself. Thank God that we are safe and that God is in control.”
Orizotti said some students availed themselves of the sacramental water several times during the first few days. When a parent heard about the idea, he posted it on Facebook with the notation, “This is why I send my children to Catholic school.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has been incorporating spirituality, charity and Catholic tradition into a strong academic program since its inception in 1980.
As Catholic Schools Week approaches later this month, principal Kathy Gustafson said the school plans to join other schools at the archdiocesan Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and spend time in charitable giving through making fleece blankets for Clare House, a shelter run by Catholic Social Services. Additionally, there will be a talent show and a spelling bee, and time to honor hard-working staff and volunteers.
But no single week encapsulates what it means to be part of a school that labels itself “Catholic.”
One example occurred on the morning of the earthquake itself. The shaking began just moments before the bell was to ring to admit students for the school day. Nearby in the facility’s gym, Brian Dennehy, the physical education teacher, was preparing to release his charges from the before-school program. As the quake struck, he followed protocol by lining everyone up against an inside wall.
But when the quake was over, fear settled in. Power had gone off and the school darkened. Staff went to the parking lot to alert parents who were still there to take their children home. Some offices in the city weren’t allowing parents to leave their buildings. Students huddled in the hallways.
In addition to being comforted by the school’s large professional staff, three priests and a deacon appeared. Father Michael Shields, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity of Jesus in Magadan, Russia, had been helping at the parish while St. Elizabeth’s parochial administrator, Father Patrick Brosamer, spent time in Magadan. But Father Brosamer had arrived back home the day before the quake, so he, Father Shields, parochial vicar Father Armand Dice and Deacon Kevin Adler all devoted their time to the school’s 169 students.
“It was great to see,” Orizotti said. “Father Mike had his arm around a boy who was having a very hard time. Big brothers and sisters were comforting their little siblings.”
In the weeks following the quake, the priests have made a special point of visiting classrooms more often to assist with any questions and anxiety, Orizotti said.
These are the kinds of memories that alumni carry with them.
Many graduates of St. Elizabeth remember with fondness an Advent tradition still observed at the school. Each morning, students gather at the front desk to light the Advent candles in a dimly lit hallway and sing.
Weekly Mass and seasonal devotions are built into the program. Monthly “faith in action” projects include a Christmas drive to help expectant moms and moms with small children at Clare House. A food drive in November provides Thanksgiving meals for Head Start families.
This year, the school initiated a pre-kindergarten program. The cost of $900 per month includes before and after care if needed, and currently enrolls 18 of the maximum 20 students.
St. Elizabeth offers Spanish in the elementary grades, as well as computer technology classes in a fully equipped computer lab. Basic tuition begins at $5,500 yearly, but financial aid is available and there are breaks depending on the number of children in a family.
Gustafson said the school will hold an open house Jan. 13 after the 11:30 a.m. Mass. The event is open to the public and will run until 2 p.m.
For more information about the school, call 345-3712 or visit akseas.com.