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Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Answer to a Prayer

Answer to a Prayer

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This spanking-new showpiece for Roman Catholic education has taken root in the most unlikely of locations.

The view from Galey Colosimo's office window is one most Catholic school principals can only imagine. The Skaggs Catholic Center, spread out over 57 acres, has 75 classrooms, a 1,350-seat auditorium, equestrian trails, a television studio, a day-care center, and the largest hardwood gym floor in the state. Statues of saints dot the campus, and a 100-foot cross tower rises from the middle of a courtyard. If that isn't enough to command attention, this spanking-new showpiece for Roman Catholic education has taken root in the most unlikely of locations a growing, middle-class suburb just 30 miles south of Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

"This is a one-of-a-kind facility for Catholic education," says Colosimo, the school's 41-year-old principal and project director. "People for many years have paid a lot of money to go to Catholic schools that look like they are ready to burn down, because there is something inside those schools that is unique and hard to turn away from. Here, we have the best in facilities and people. That is a powerful combination."

And Catholic school leaders are hoping people take notice.

A 24-page, four-color pamphlet produced for the center describes it as the culmination of "more than 1,500 years of Catholic philosophy and teaching." Bishop George Niederauer of the Diocese of Salt Lake City calls it a "Catholic educator's dream."

The National Catholic Educational Association is working on a video about the school.

Skaggs has hosted visitors from private, parochial, and public schools about five times a month since it opened last fall, and the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association is working on a video about the school that it plans to show at its national convention this spring.

But while the setting is stunning, Colosimo is quick to point out that what makes Skaggs tick is something beyond bricks and mortar.

"The true importance of this place is what we believe in, not the building," he says.


When the Diocese of Salt Lake City went looking to buy a building in 1995 to add some space for its growing population of Catholic students, it had no idea it would end up with something like the Skaggs Center.

Diocesan officials had settled on modest plans to purchase an older public school about a mile from the current Skaggs campus. But the diocese was outbid by commercial developers.

After disgruntled Catholic parents spoke up at a school board meeting and the story hit the local papers, the diocese received a phone call from multimillionaire Sam Skaggs.

Skaggs, still a Baptist at the time and the recently retired chairman of American Stores Co., a national drugstore and grocery chain, basically offered the diocese a blank check. Ultimately, he contributed $55 million to the project, an unprecedented gift in Catholic elementary and secondary education.

Both he and his wife, Aline, have since converted to the Catholic faith. Notoriously private, they shun attention related to their philanthropy, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sam Skaggs' interest in Catholicism is said to have grown out of his service in the military during World War II, when he met Catholic chaplains he greatly admired. Before his involvement with the new school, he made donations to the diocese's community-outreach organization and picked up the cost of replacing its soup kitchen and homeless shelter after it burned down.

Thanks to his generosity, diocesan officials could think big in planning the center that now bears his name.

One of their first objectives was to create an educational experience that takes students from the "cradle" to the brink of college. Today, the Skaggs Center is home to the Guardian Angel Day Care Center, which serves about 200 children ages 6 weeks to 10 years old; St. John the Baptist Elementary School, with about 900 students in grades K-8; and Juan Diego Catholic High School, with about 250 students in 9th and 10th grades. It will add junior and senior classes over the next two years.

The diocese also wanted to create a distinctive campus, one that honored the Catholic Church's past while preparing students to live and work in the 21st century. To that end, Colosimo and Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, the vicar general of the Salt Lake City Diocese and a former superintendent of Catholic schools in Utah, spent a year traveling to about 100 religious, private, and public schools around the country.

"Because they don't have enough money, most Catholic schools are forced to be utilitarian in their outlook," says Colosimo, who was working as a Catholic elementary school principal before signing on to the Skaggs project. "The Catholic schools that stand out in your mind say environment is important and you're teaching all the time. It is not only what they learn in the classroom, but what they learn from the environment as well. The environment speaks and sends a certain message."

The message at Skaggs, administrators say, is that education is not simply about test scores, but also about the development of the whole person—spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

"Learning is not just cognitive. It is about what type of people you are, too," says Vice Principal John Colosimo, Galey's brother. "We fail if we graduate 4.0 students who are not good people."

Officials settled on a circular design for the center, with a courtyard in the middle—a nod to the church's monastic tradition. And with four computer rooms, four science labs, libraries for both the elementary and high schools, and a computer network that allows parents to check their children's grades from home, the schools are fully loaded for today's wired, high-tech world.

Sister Karla McKinnie, the principal of St. John the Baptist Elementary and a Catholic school educator for 34 years, says she had never worked in a school like Skaggs. In her most recent post, at a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles, she had eight classrooms, and the school had to bring in portable rooms to start a kindergarten and open a computer lab.

"Most of the schools I have been in have either been falling apart or in need of constant upkeep," she says. "To move into a brand-new building is exciting."

But faculty members are just as likely to praise the school's climate. "This is a very tight-knit community," says 3rd grade teacher Patti Buelte. After 12 years of teaching, this is her first time at a Catholic school. "It has a very positive undertone. You walk in here and you can just feel the good things being done."


Response from the community has also been enthusiastic. St. John's already has a waiting list of 1,700 students—about 70 percent of whom are not Catholic—for next year's elementary school classes. In the entire state, meanwhile, there are just under 5,000 students enrolled in 10 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools.

Tuition at the Skaggs Center is $2,400 for grades K-8 and $4,850 for high school, slightly higher than the national average for Catholic schools. Financial aid is available, and school officials say students will not be denied enrollment based on monetary need.

The Rev. Terrence Moore, the pastor of the new St. John the Baptist Parish, which plans to build a church on the Skaggs campus within the next few years, says Catholics feel much more at home in this predominantly Mormon state than when he arrived in Utah 32 years.

At the time, he recalls, the environment for religious minorities was "pretty oppressive." But today, he says, "we are viewed now as full participants in the local society."

The closest Catholic high school to Skaggs—Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, about a half-hour drive away—also welcomed the newcomer.

Judge Memorial, which opened about 80 years ago, can't match Skaggs in modern amenities. But it has an excellent reputation, and has been recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education three times.

Six years ago, when the state's Catholic school principals convened to discuss the need for new schools, "we were turning students away who wanted to come here," Principal Renee Genereux of Judge Memorial says.

The gift from the Skaggs family for the new campus eased the pressures on Genereux's school. Although 25 of her freshman students left last year for the new school, Genereux says Judge Memorial has seen no major exodus. "This place breathes better with 850 students than 900 anyway," she says.


At 11 o'clock on a recent Tuesday morning, the anchors of "Juan Diego News" are busy scanning their scripts, brushing loose strands of hair into place, and checking last-minute camera angles for the live morning show that will be broadcast to all high school home rooms.

From the school's television studio, the sharply dressed anchors start the show with a prayer—today is the Feast of St. Peter—and fill their classmates in on the school's Christian-service requirements and applications for next year's courses.

Buzzing around the studio with infectious enthusiasm is Patti Garrison, who helps television production teacher Dan Tucker run the class. On medical leave from a local CBS-TV affiliate, Garrison and her husband, both Greek Orthodox, decided to send their two children, 15-year-old Ryan and 3-year-old Wyatt, to Skaggs because of the strong academics and disciplined environment. Having their toddler in day care on the same campus is both a time saver and a comfort for them.

Ryan likes the fact that he is being pushed more here even if it means some wrinkles in his social calendar.

Garrison admits some anxiety about how Ryan, in particular, would fit into the Catholic community—only about 20 percent of the high school students are non-Catholic— but says they haven't had any problems. She is most impressed with the school's high expectations, especially compared with Ryan's experience in public school.

"My son complains that he has no social life because he has so much homework," Garrison says. "They demand more, and that is a good thing."

Ryan, a quiet young man at an age when having his mother in the school can be slightly embarrassing, likes the fact that he is being pushed more here—even if it means some wrinkles in his social calendar. "The work is hard, but this place is better," he says. "Here they expect more of you with the schoolwork and how you treat people."

Sixteen-year-old Brittany White says Skaggs feels "more like a family" than other public schools she has attended. A Catholic, White likes being around other young people who share the same faith—something she doesn't often find in Utah. "I knew it would be a good education here, and I would meet a lot of Catholic kids," she says.

Parents like Bill and Essie McIntire, who have a daughter in kindergarten and a 3-year-old son they will eventually send to the school, also are impressed with what they see so far. Both Catholics, the two like the values that guide the school. "My first reason for bringing them here is they have a sense of belonging," Essie McIntire says. "It's not necessarily a Catholic belief, but a Christian environment that is accepting and opening."

Non-Catholic students are required to attend Mass with their classes at the school's chapel but do not receive communion or feel pressured to make the sign of the cross. School officials say they are not in the business of seeking converts for Catholicism, but they encourage discussions about God, values, and morality. Young people, they say, are hungry to explore the big questions that inevitably raise deeper questions about faith.

Prayer and the spiritual life are "just part of the fabric here," says the Rev. Tom O'Mahoney, a religion teacher at the school.


Robert Kealey, the National Catholic Educational Association's executive director for the department of elementary schools, calls the Skaggs Center "a model for what can be done in Catholic education across the country."

But even he questions whether it's a model that can be replicated elsewhere.

While he would love to see a school like this one in all 180 Catholic dioceses across the country, he concedes that it's unlikely without the help of more benefactors like Sam Skaggs.

Rick Squire, the principal of Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in Reno, Nev., came to that same conclusion when he visited the campus recently with some colleagues. They are in the middle of a building project and hope to open a new Catholic high school next year.

Squire, who describes the center as "absolutely amazing," acknowledges that Catholic educators in Reno do not have the financial resources to build a facility of this magnitude. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime place," he says.

But he adds that it was helpful to get a sense of how the school incorporated elements of the Catholic tradition into its design.

Monsignor Fitzgerald, the vicar general of the diocese, says he hopes the Skaggs Center will inspire other wealthy donors looking to help Catholic education.

"There are tons of people out there with big dollars," he says. "We hope this offers them a sense of encouragement."

In the meantime, as at any brand-new school, Skaggs officials are concentrating on trying to shape an institution that, until now, has had no history or traditions.

The high school could hold 2,000 students.

"Whatever we have done this year, it is the first," says Sister Patricia Riley, who heads the campus-ministry office and recently started a community-service program. "There are a lot of firsts, and that is exciting."

School leaders are also mulling how much Skaggs should grow. The high school could hold 2,000 students, Vice Principal Colosimo says, but whether that size is ideal has yet to be determined.

"There are so many possibilities here," he says. "You are only limited by your imagination."

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Pages 36-40

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