BEAUFORT – As the 25th school year begins at St. Peter School, Principal Ann Feltner has seen a dream becoming reality before her eyes.
“For a long time I have wanted this school to become the heart of our parish,” said Feltner, who began her long association with St. Peter in 1996 as a school parent, and then held various teaching and leadership positions there.
“I can really see the excitement that people have for the school growing dramatically. So many volunteers from the parish are coming to help us make it into the vibrant Catholic campus it has become,” she said.
She beams with pride while discussing the volunteers from all walks of life who worked side by side with paid employees, contractors, parents, and teachers to renovate the school this summer for its 25th anniversary: new paint, lighting, flooring, safety doors and security cameras. Also, more volunteers started the school year by tutoring students, reading to classes, gardening, working in the office, and shelving books in the library.
“All the things that people don’t think of being important at a school are very important when operating a school,” explained Feltner, who had four children attend St. Peter and now has grandchildren enrolled.
There have been many changes in the 25 years since Msgr. Martin Laughlin began garnering support from parishioners, saying he felt strongly that the children deserved a Catholic education.
The school started in the church’s small eight-room education wing in 1991. In its first year, it consisted of five classrooms, a library, a work room and an office.
As grades were added, space was needed. Father Laughlin received permission from Bishop David B. Thompson, to build a new school on the church’s property, which is the same structure in use today. Classes began in the new building in 1995. The first eighth-grade class consisted of four students, and their graduation was held in the spring of 1998.
Enrollment peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the school averaged about 220 students.
Then, the recession hit in 2007 and enrollment dropped dramatically. Since then, public charter schools have opened, along with a new Christian school. All have offered enrollment challenges to St. Peter, but Feltner remains resilient, knowing that no other elementary school in the Beaufort area can offer the solid, traditional teachings of a Catholic education combined with high academic standards.
Two-thirds of the faculty hold graduate degrees, Spanish is taught in grades K-4 through sixth, values and discipline are emphasized, and teachers are focused on the character development of each child, Feltner said.
Today, during the school’s 25th year of service, it is a vibrant, active campus and enrolls 103 students in grades pre-K through sixth. The seventh and eighth grades moved to John Paul II Catholic School two years ago.
When it came time for John and Catherine Stephens, of Beaufort, to send their children to school, they felt St. Peter would provide the best overall education. In the two years their daughter, Laura, 5, has been enrolled, Mrs. Stephens said they have been amazed at what she has learned about their Catholic faith.
“She says things out of the blue like, ‘Jesus wants us to help people when they are sick.’ She sees priests in the classroom. She learns about the saints and about Mary. I could go on and on about the little things, but the big thing is that she goes off to school every day and the school reinforces her Catholic identity. The school reinforces the way we try to raise her at home,” Mrs. Stephens said.
Wanting your children to grow up to be well-rounded, educated Catholics is something that Feltner understands, as she shared the same goal when raising her own children. Her son, Dan, attended St. Peter and now his daughter, Delilah, is enrolled there. He also plans to send his younger daughter, Cami, to the school when she is old enough.
“It was important for us to enroll our children at St. Peter’s, where we knew they would get a good education and also learn about their faith and how they should treat others,” explained Dan’s wife Shelby, who works at the school as an executive assistant.
Another alum, Stephanie Carroll Whiteside, was a member of St. Peter’s inaugural first grade class in 1991, and in the first eighth-grade class to graduate in 1999. She is now a pharmacist and has her son, Carter, attending St. Peter in K-4 this year.
“My husband and I decided from the get-go that we wanted our children to have the same Catholic education that we did,” she explained. “My family can trace back five generations and we all received Catholic educations. So it was very important to us to continue the tradition with our son and offer the same solid education along with strong faith formation.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Matt Flewelling, who also attended St. Peter, and his wife Jennifer, who teaches K-4 there. Their son, Matt Jr., is the latest addition to the school family.
Despite the successes St. Peter has seen in its 25 years, Feltner has bigger plans she hopes to achieve.
“I would love to see a [religious] sister join our school again,” she said. “And I want to see the continued involvement of the parish community. So many people have so many talents that the children can learn from.”
And learning, whether it is academics or the Catholic faith, is the mission of St. Peter School.
By Rose Ewing | Special to the Miscellany
Top photo: Miscellany/Rose Ewing: Father Paul MacNeil celebrates Mass with students at St. Peter School.