Heaven Sent

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A 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 in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper, boasts 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 one-hundred-foot cross rises from 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 town 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 principal. "People for many years have paid a lot of money to go to Catholic schools that look like they are ready to burn down. 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 leaders are hoping people take notice. The school's 24-page, 4-color promotional pamphlet describes the center as the culmination of "more than 1,500 years of Catholic philosophy and teaching." Skaggs has hosted visitors from private, parochial, and public schools about five times a month since it opened a year ago. Bishop George Niederauer of the Diocese of Salt Lake City calls it a "Catholic educator's dream."

Salt Lake's Catholic leaders did not set out to build a dream school when they went looking for new classroom space in 1995. That changed when multimillionaire Sam Skaggs called and essentially offered a blank check. Skaggs, once the chairman of American Stores Co., a national drugstore and grocery chain, contributed $55 million toward a new school—an unprecedented gift in Catholic elementary and secondary education.

Multimillionaire Sam Skaggs called Salt Lake's Catholic leaders and essentially offered a blank check.

At the time, Skaggs was a Baptist, though he and his wife, Aline, have since converted to the Catholic faith. Notoriously private, they declined to be interviewed for this story. But Skaggs' interest in the religion is said to have been sparked by Catholic chaplains he met and admired during his World War II military service. Even before the gift for the new school, he had bankrolled some of the diocese's community outreach.

The mogul's $55 million gift gave diocesan officials a rare chance to think big. "Because they don't have enough money, most Catholic schools are forced to be utilitarian in their outlook," says the 41-year-old Colosimo, who was a Catholic elementary school principal before signing on to the Skaggs project. Eager to create the best possible educational environment, the diocese decided to build a center that would take students from the cradle to the brink of college. Today, Skaggs is home to the Guardian Angel Day Care Center, with 200 children ages 6 weeks to 10 years old; St. John the Baptist Elementary School, with 900 K-8 students; and Juan Diego Catholic High School, with 250 students in 9th and 10th grades. Junior and senior classes will be added 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 for 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 Utah Catholic schools, spent a year traveling to about 100 religious, private, and public schools around the country.

Officials eventually settled on a circular design, with a courtyard in the middle—a nod to the church's monastic tradition. The center has four computer rooms, four science labs, libraries for both the elementary and high schools, and a computer network that links parents and teachers.

Sister Karla McKinnie, principal of St. John the Baptist Elementary and a Catholic school educator for 34 years, is amazed by the facility. Before coming to Skaggs, she had worked at a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles with only eight classrooms. "Most of the schools I have been in have either been falling apart or in need of constant upkeep," she says

‘We fail if we graduate 4.0 students who are not good people.’

John Colosimo,
Vice Principal,
Skaggs Catholic Center

Administrators say the center's grand design sends a message that education is about the development of the whole person— spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. "Learning is not just cognitive. It is about what type of person you are, too," says Vice Principal John Colosimo, Galey's brother. "We fail if we graduate 4.0 students who are not good people."

This philosophy of learning has been well-received, helping Skaggs expand the tiny beachhead that Catholic schools have established in Mormon Utah. About 5,000 of the state's half a million K-12 students are enrolled in Utah's 10 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools, and that number is growing.

The Reverend Terrence Moore, pastor of a church to be built on the Skaggs campus within the next two years, says that when he arrived in Utah 32 years ago, Catholics and other religious minorities found little tolerance. Catholics today feel much more at home, Moore says. "We are viewed now as full participants in the local society."

Parents have been enthusiastic about the new school, even though its tuition—$2,400 for grades K-8 and $4,850 for high school—is slightly higher than the national average for Catholic schools. At one point last spring, St. John's waiting list brimmed with 1,700 students—about 70 percent of whom were not Catholic.

At 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning late last spring, the anchors of Juan Diego News are scanning 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 homerooms. From Skaggs' 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 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.

Garrison was initially anxious about how Ryan would fit into the Catholic community—only about 20 percent of the high school's students are non-Catholic. But so far, he hasn't had any problems. She is most impressed with Skaggs' high expectations, especially compared with the public schools that Ryan attended. "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."

Young people, school officials say, hunger to explore questions that inevitably touch on faith.

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 pushed 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."

Non-Catholic students are required to attend Mass at the school's chapel but do not receive communion. School officials say they are not seeking converts, but they encourage discussions about God, values, and morality. Young people, they say, hunger to explore questions that inevitably touch on faith.

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

Robert Kealey of the National Catholic Educational Association calls Skaggs "a model for what can be done in Catholic education across the country." But similar schools are not likely to be built without the help of more benefactors like Sam Skaggs. "There are tons of people out there with big dollars," says Monsignor Fitzgerald. "We hope this offers them a sense of encouragement."

In the meantime, Skaggs officials are concentrating on shaping an institution that has no history or traditions. "There are a lot of firsts, and that is exciting," says Sister Patricia Riley, who heads the campus- ministry office and recently started a community-service program.

School leaders are also mulling over Skaggs' growth. The high school could hold 2,000 students, vice principal John Colosimo says, but that may not be the ideal size. "There are so many possibilities here," he says. "You are only limited by your imagination."

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Pages 28-33

Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Heaven Sent
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