By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The annual School Bell Breakfast, a benefit for the Strong City Schools, is a celebration of Catholic education in Kansas City’s urban core. Founded in 1989 under Bishop John J. Sullivan as the Central City Schools Fund, it was later fostered by Bishop Raymond J. Boland and now by Bishop Robert W. Finn. The Central City School Fund was renamed the Strong City School Fund, a Bright Futures Fund, in 2010. For 25 years it has provided need-based assistance for low-income children in Kansas City’s urban core; $36 million raised over the past quarter century has helped more than 15,000 families access Catholic education.
When the bell rang at 7:30 a.m., Bob Paredes, Chair of the Bright Futures Board of Directors welcomed more than 550 guests at the breakfast held in a ballroom at the Muehlebach Hotel downtown —educators, students and donors — and said that Catholic schools are a 100-year tradition in KC’s urban core. Holy Cross School was opened in 1910, Guardian Angels — now Our Lady of Angels — in 1911, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1915. Paredes, a Holy Cross School alumnus, spoke of the sacrifices parents make to send their kids to Catholic schools. He said, “The children and parents of our Strong City Schools simply want the opportunity to obtain a quality, values-based education.” The Fund makes that possible.
Strong City School students were seated at tables with the guests. Aiden Luna attends Our Lady of Guadalupe School with his brother Reuben. Aiden’s favorite subject is Math and he enjoys playing soccer. Other students were scattered around the room, eating breakfast and chatting, some shyly, some eagerly.
Following Bishop Finn’s invocation and grace, and the Pledge of Allegiance, Emcee Johnny Kane, KMBZ-radio sports director, spoke briefly of the life changing importance of Catholic education.
Several awards were presented. The St. Thomas Aquinas Award, whose namesake, a Doctor of the Church, theologian and philosopher, and patron of Catholic schools and students, is given by the Bright Futures Fund to those who promote and foster Catholic schools.
Jim O’Sullivan, immediate past Chair of the Bright Futures Fund, presented the award posthumously to Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland, who died Feb. 27 in Ireland.
In announcing the award, O’Sullivan described Irish-born Bishop Boland as a wayfarer, an immigrant to the shores of this country. Like Bishop Boland, “Catholic education takes us to faraway shores in so many ways,” he said.
Raymond Boland was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. in 1957 and named and ordained Bishop of Birmingham, Ala., in 1988. In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II named him to lead the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He served as bishop until 2005, when Pope Benedict XV accepted his retirement request.
During his years as bishop, he promoted the establishment of endowments to ensure the continuity of diocesan Catholic schools. He established the diocese’s first capital campaign, Gift of Faith, and sponsored the feasibility study which led to the opening of Cristo Rey Kansas City High School.
O’Sullivan urged guests “to take Catholic schools under our care and turn their sails seaward.”
The award was accepted by Bishop Emeritus Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga., Bishop Raymond’s younger brother. He spoke of his brother as a boy, a seminarian and then missionary priest leaving his homeland for the United States.
“Ray was deeply involved in Catholic education,” Bishop Kevin said.
Bishop Kevin travels to Ireland regularly to visit family and plans to share his brother’s St. Thomas Aquinas Award with them.
Dorothy Lambert was the first lay principal in this diocese and served the diocese’ schools for 37 years before her retirement in 2001. She died in 2006. Lambert believed Catholic schools’ mission was to help children realize education’s importance along with learning love for Jesus. The Dorothy Lambert Award is presented to a Strong City Schools teacher who exemplifies what she tried to do; this year’s awardee is Susan Hoffman, who has taught at Our Lady of Angels for six years.
Sally Robinson received a Lifetime Achievement award for 35 years of teaching at Holy Cross.
Keynote speaker Dr. Mary McDonald, retired superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Memphis, was responsible for creating Memphis’ Jubilee Schools, eight long-closed (one school was closed for 57 years) which reopened under her leadership. Catholic schools in the inner city bring light to the area, she said. What Catholic schools do, matters, she said.
She reminded the audience that “we are the arms of Christ in this world. No matter where you are today, whether shining brightly or just about to give out, someone in a Catholic school is there for you, and that someone is Christ.”
The Fund’s Managing Director Jeremy Lillig shared statistics and accomplishments of the Strong City Schools during the past year. Total enrollment is 438, of which 64 percent are Hispanic and 43 percent are English language learners. Eighty six percent are Catholic.
With an average yearly family income of $16,000, 89 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Ninety percent live below the poverty level. And 24 percent are students with special needs. Despite poverty, the average daily attendance is 96 percent. Why? The schools provide a values-based, student-centered education focused on academics, with faculty support and collaboration in safe, secure environments. They are dually accredited by AdvanceED and the Missouri Chapter of the National Federation of Non-Public Schools.
Partnerships with several area Catholic high schools have been forged to provide tutoring and test preparation to boys and girls. The Richard and Olivia Mock Scholarship Foundation has awarded Strong City School students scholarships to Archbishop O’Hara and St. Pius X high schools. A partnership has been formed with the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education to expand services for students with special needs.
The schools all have new computers. Each school will receive statues of St. Francis of Assisi that belonged to Bishop Boland. Best of all, last year, the School Bell Breakfast raised $136,000 for scholarships. This year, $258,602 was raised to help impoverished families give their children Catholic education.
To learn more or donate to the Strong City School Fund, contact Jeremy Lillig, (816) 714-2356 or email email@example.com.