By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Have you ever visited a Catholic school in the Kansas City area and heard it announced over the intercom that “Sister Vickie was in the building?” The phrase has long been a code letting teachers know that an unauthorized person or persons had entered the building. When it was announced that “Sister Vickie had left the building,” everyone knows all is clear and safe again.
At Cristo Rey Kansas City High School, Sister Vickie has for six years been the embodiment of what Cristo Rey stands for: empowering young people to work and build their futures. And now Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Vickie Perkins, the high school’s founding president, has retired effective June 6. She has indeed left the building.
A long-time educator, Sister Vickie was born in Dodge City, Kan., where her father worked for the Chamber of Commerce. Vickie and her sister, Janie, moved with their parents to Great Bend, Kan., when Vickie was seven. Their father worked at the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce until his death three years later.
Vickie’s mother moved the little family to Kansas City that year and 10-year-old Vickie and her sister attended St. Mary School, later renamed Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was run by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Already comfortable with the sisters, Vickie attended Archbishop Hogan High School (formerly an SCL-run school, now a charter school) and entered the community right after she graduated.
“I liked the sisters I knew from school, and I liked what I saw of the community. And after 52 years, that impression is still borne out. I’ve never been sorry,” she said.
Her first year with the community she taught 5th grade at St. Daniel the Prophet school in Chicago, then the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth recalled her to send her to the order’s University of St. Mary to earn her degree in education. She later completed her master of arts in Mathematics at Ohio State University. Sister Vickie then taught math at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., for 11 years, then served at Hogan for another 11 years, first as a math teacher, then as principal.
The Central City Planning Organization had begun meeting in 1981, to explore the effectiveness of the central city parishes working together. Eventually four Ad Hoc committees were formed, including the Central City School committee. As principal of Hogan High School, Sister Vickie had been one of the original members of the planning organization.
According to This Far By Faith, the 1991 diocesan history, one of the Central City School committee’s recommendations was that Bishop Sullivan recruit a “blue ribbon” committee to raise funds and help in the development of the Central City Schools. He agreed and about 1984 invited Larry Blankenship, James T. Siegfried, Tom McCullough and Sister Vickie Perkins as members. Thus was born the Central City School Fund.
The group worked to raise funds to provide tuition assistance to families whose children attended St. Stephen, St. Joseph and St. Therese Little Flower, later renamed St. Monica, St. Francis Xavier, Our Lady of the Americas, later renamed Our Lady of Guadalupe, Holy Cross, and Our Lady of Angels, formed by a partnership of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Redemptorist), Guardian Angels and Our Lady of the Americas schools, and Archbishop Hogan High School. In 1989, the first scholarships were awarded.
Recently, the Central City School Fund was renamed the Strong City School Fund, assisting families with children attending Holy Cross, Our Lady of Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe schools.
Sister Vickie also served as associate superintendent of diocesan schools for a year before being named superintendent, a position she held for six years. She then went to work at the Partnership for Children, a children’s advocacy agency in Kansas City.
The following year, her community sent her to Denver to serve as executive director of Mount St. Vincent’s Home for severely emotionally disturbed children. She was to remain there four years, establishing an outpatient program for the children.
Sister Vickie worked for a year at the Gardner Institute in Wyandotte County, Kan., giving children affected by poverty resources for success, including the start of a childcare program. Then in 2005, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth accepted the charge of opening a new Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City. Sister Vickie was named founding president of the new school.
“That first year was chaotic, our surroundings, everything,” she recalled with a grin. Our Lady of Angels grade school, which had been located in the old Redemptorist High School building near Linwood and Broadway, had moved to the former Guardian Angels school at Westport Road and Mercier to make way for Cristo Rey High School, scheduled to open in 2006. There was much to be done to get the building ready, and only a year to do it.
“Everything — office and classroom furniture and accessories — was donated and we stored it all on the third floor,” Sister Vickie said. There was no elevator at first, so it all had to be carried or dragged up three flights of stairs.
The sisters had received a bid for $3 million to renovate and remodel the building. Then Christmas in October offered to do the work.
“We got the whole thing done for $750,000, including an elevator!” Sister Vickie exclaimed. “You know the SCL icon in the lobby? By doing in wood and painting it to look like metal, it cost $680 instead of $14,000.”
She was very appreciative of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Redemptorist) Parish. “Redemptorist has been wonderful! People always ask about the kids here at Cristo Rey. They’ve been very good landlords.”
Cristo Rey Kansas City High School was the 12th high school in the network founded by Jesuit Father John Foley in 1996 in the Pilsen/Little Village area of southwest Chicago. Today there are 24 Cristo Rey high schools across the country. The unique Cristo Rey (Spanish for “Christ the King”) education model combines Catholic secondary education with a work-study program through which students pay 50 to 60 percent of their tuition by sharing entry-level clerical jobs at area businesses.
In 2010, Sister Vickie, wistful but proud, watched as the first graduating class of Cristo Rey Kansas City marched toward the sanctuary at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope Church.
“We had 59 seniors graduate last year,” she said, “and 100 percent of them were accepted to colleges all over the country. Many got scholarships to the colleges they are attending.”
Thinking of those first graduates, she said they are “really doing quite well in school. I think it’s because they held jobs during their four years here. They learned how to ask questions and to manage their time and resources. Working gave them insights on finding out who could teach them new things and other job skills. Oh, it’s been a very worthwhile six years.”
Certain things stand out in her memory. “When we started getting college acceptance letters, we could finally say, ‘It’s happening, they are going to go college!’” A display case across the hall from the school office is filled with acceptance letters and scholarship awards.
Another stand out for Sister Vickie is “When kids take ownership of their education and their future. When they say, ‘OK this is mine; this is my future, and my responsibility.’ That’s huge!”
Over the years she has talked with the students, about their classes, test scores, and of course their jobs. “I’ve seen them change from somebody who just goes to work because they have to, to really talking about ‘my job.’ You can hear them in the hallways or in their carpools to and from work or field trips. They talk about who they work for, what they do; they have ideas on how things could be improved. I know that the kids feel that what they are doing is important.”
Sister Vickie has no intention of resting on her laurels. She has plans for the future. Beginning in September, she will be working half time for the Cristo Rey Network, travelling to the various schools whenever issues need to be addressed, she said. She plans to work part time with retired Father John Wandless, founder of the Urban Rangers Corps, an eight-week summer project that pays young men aged 14-18 while they learn basic home repair skills. “I believe in that program,” she said.
She is also looking into starting a volunteer house for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, similar to the Jesuit volunteer program. She would like it to be in Wyandotte County, Kan., with easy access to the SCL mother house in Leavenworth, and close to Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.
Kathleen Hanlon took the reins as president of Cristo Rey Kansas City High School May 1. Hanlon worked for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Montana and most recently in Chicago as a teacher and a principal.
“Cristo Rey has been in start-up mode all this time,” Sister Vickie said. “It’s time to move past that, to take where it is and solidify it. I’ve had some teary moments, but it’s a wise decision,” she said. “I’ve gotten more out of my six years with Cristo Rey than I’ve put into to it, I know that. I’m a start up person.”
And now she’s starting up anew.