FROM SAINT PATRICK’S TO BILLINGS CENTRAL
~ 60 Years of Quality Education ~
Typical of the history of Catholic education in America is the story of Billings Central Catholic High School. Spurred by the need for a continuous Christian education, Bishop W.J. Condon and the Catholic individuals of Billings undertook the task of building the first Catholic high school in Montana in December of 1944. The former Orthopedic Hospital building at the corner of Division Street and First Avenue North was leveled, and construction began toward a 16-room school and gymnasium on this two and one half acre plot.
While construction ensued, the first class of “Saint Patrick’s High School” was formed in 1943 and the mere 25 students attended classes in the Kate Fratt Memorial Grade School building. In 1946, with enrollment at the high school increasing, Fr. O’Rourke provided a house that then became known as the “Annex” for all of the students.These pioneering students never complained of the exceptionally small classrooms or the fact that the second story of the Annex housed two nuns and a senior classroom along with the only bathroom. The dining room on the main floor was used for the junior class homeroom and the parlor was utilized as the study hall. Sister Patricia Earaerts, Principal, moved her office into the kitchen and the freshman and sophomore classes were still held in the Fratt building.
In 1947 the first graduating class of Saint Patrick’s High School consisted of 13 graduates: 7 young women and 6 young men. That spring brought the first prom and Jerry Holzer and Theresa Wambeke Karls Ewen were crowned king and queen. The May 1947 issue of the school’s newspaper, The Rim Rocket, stated, “Though falling plaster has come our way, we regret that we have to say ‘adios,’ and though our new high school will have aisles, big blackboards and lockers, it can never compare with you (the Annex’s) pillar-less porch and cozy closets.”
In the fall of 1947, with the building almost completed, 153 students attended classes at the new “Central Catholic High School.” Students learned that Sister Francetta O’Donnell, who pioneered with Sr. Patricia in the days when Central was only a possibility and not an actuality, had accepted the job of Principal.She would also teach American History and Spanish I and II. Features of the new building included a library, a main office and seven classrooms, including facilities for sewing, chemistry and journalism. On May 23, 1948, the Most Rev. Archbishop Edward D. Howard of Portland participated in the dedication ceremony and the laying of the cornerstone which reads, “For God and Country under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Additions were made the the school as material and labor permitted, most of which was donated by generous members of the Billings community. In the fall of 1954, the south wing was opened, enlarging the school’s potential capacity to nearly 750 students. New classrooms and a new library were added, along with music rooms, and the Chapel.Most importantly, the addition of the cafeteria meant an end to sack lunches in the gym.
Billings Central of today has seen many structural changes over the years. Most obvious are the energy efficient windows, doors and lighting that were added during the 1993-94 school year. The Central Chapel has been renovated twice during Central’s history, and is now named the Jack and Marie Tenge Memorial Chapel. However, the most substantial renovation came in the year 2000 with a generous 2 million dollar donation from the Ralph Nelles family. This gift afforded Central an auxiliary gym, along with new offices for the coaching staff, locker, wrestling and weight rooms, and even a place for concessions. In 2003, a generous group of individuals set out to improve the condition of Central’s new weight room by installing state of the art conditioning equipment.
BCCHS RAM PRIDE
As long as there have been students at Billings Central Catholic High School, sports have played an integral part. While still at the Annex, Central had a six-man football team that played games with neighboring towns. In 1948, as enrollment increased, Central hired its first coach/athletic director, Mr. Bill Osborne. Bill moved to Billings from Marshall, Minnesota, after graduating from St. John’s College in Collegville, MN. In his first year, Coach Osborne was able to form an 11-man football team. On August 30, 1948, thirty Central athletes reported for practice. Practices were held at North Park and the players used the Naval Armory for a locker room. In his five-year stay at Central, Coach Osborne compiled a record of 33-4.
Along with football, Central had a talented baseball team, which was started in 1949. In its brief existence the team won three district championships. For the last 60 years however, boys’ basketball has been an integral part of the men’s athletic program. For the first time in 60 years, the Ram’s boys’ basketball team was able to claim the State championship in 1996, beating the Libby Loggers.
As Central has grown so have the sporting opportunities. Today Central has competitive teams in Football, Volleyball, Golf, Basketball, Tennis, Cross Country, Track, Soccer, Wrestling and Swimming. The boys have captured multiple Golf, Tennis, Cross Country and Swimming state championships.
The Lady Rams were a strong contender in Girls’ Gymnastics upon joining state competition in 1975, capturing five of the eleven Class A-B-C State Titles. Montana dropped gymnastics in 1983, but not before Lisa Kudrna Day won 14 of 16 events at State during her four years, winning the All-Around State Champion title four times. This incredible feat was accomplished by only one other girl in the nation. Third straight triple crown winners in 1987, the Lady Rams Basketball program is evidence of the success of female athletics at Central. Central remains the only Montana school in girls’ basketball competition to win the “triple crown”- conference, divisional and state championships – for three years in a row. Girl’s basketball was first introduced at Central in 1972 and has produced outstanding athletes such as Shannon Cate and Jenny Heringer.Our Lady Rams have proven to be a force both on the court and off winning state championships in Softball, Golf, Volleyball, Track and Field and Swimming, and Cheerleading.
The performing arts have delighted and entertained parents, faculty, friends and students since the very beginning. The first play produced by the Saint Patrick’s Drama Club, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” was presented at the Babcock Theatre with over 1800 enthusiastic drama lovers in attendance. Other plays included “Don’t Take My Penny” and “When You Wore a Tulip”. Stars of these productions were Claire Studer Chouinard, Marynell Curtis Heringer, Jerry Holzer, Charles Dillon, Jim Badura, Jim Weber, Jim Thelen, Bill Brinkle, and Nicholas Sassano. The first play produced for the new Central Catholic High School was “Arsenic and Old Lace” which was performed on November 5, 1947 at the Babcock Theatre. Central still continues to entertain with such musicals as “Carousel”, “The Pajama Game”, “Pirates of Penzance” and many others. Productions have taken place on Central’s stage, in the gym, at Lewis and Clark Middle School, Petro Theatre and most recently at Venture Theatre.
Central’s music program continues to delight young and old alike with its concerts and ever popular “Cabaret” each spring. The “Highlighters” have been an audition-only vocal group for more than 40 years. Other singing ensembles that have entertained through the years include Vocalocity, Concert Choir, Glee Club, Choral-ettes and the Central Singers.
Instrumental music is still important to Central’s music department. The orchestra was included in the first several years of Central’s curriculum and was finally reintroduced in 1992. Today Central’s Orchestra includes both Central and Saint Francis Upper School students. Their talents are utilized throughout the city of Billings and at special functions for Mayfair, BACET, and all system Masses. The Pep Band continues to entertain ardent Ram Fans at all the home games. Central students compete as a whole or individually in the District and State Music Festivals. Central has also had numerous students nominated for the All Northwest Choir.
Speech, Drama and Debate have also made a huge comeback for our articulate Central students. In 1948 Joe Keating, then a Central Junior, took all state honors in humorous declamation at the speech finals with his reading from “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Today, our talented Speech and Drama contestants regularly place in competition and at the state level.
Our motto, “Founded on Faith,” is the cornerstone of life at Billings Central. The Chapel is still the focal point of the building and Mass is offered there during the week. Led by a faculty priest, sister, lay person, or a visiting retreat leader, all-school and class retreats have been an integral part of Central’s curriculum since its beginning. Today Central students attend retreats at local parishes and the seniors enjoy 3 days at Saint Thomas Camp in Monarch, Montana. The Search continues to enlighten the juniors and seniors two weekends out of the year. First introduced in the mid 1960’s, the Search has continued through the years to be a time of spiritual reflection and growth.
Religion classes have been a consistent part of the curriculum at Central. Formerly taught only by area priests, students now learn from a variety of lay people on an array of topics such as Church history, spirituality, the Bible, sexuality, prayer and comparative religions. Students are also expected to complete hundreds of hours of community service. Many of our Central students volunteer at Saint Vincent De Paul, the Rescue Mission, Mayfair, and local hospitals and parishes. Many students participate in C.O.R.E. (Central’s Organization for Religious Endeavors) which initially began in 1947 as the Student Spiritual Council.
EXTRA CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
Central’s social life is vast and exciting. Students have the opportunity to attend formal dances three times a year with the social event of the season being the Junior/Senior Prom. The Home and School Association also hosts numerous movie and poker nights throughout the year for students of all grades to enjoy. Homecoming week with all of its various activities is the perfect start to a new school year. Each day Central students have a chance to dress according to the theme of the day culminating with green and white day on Friday. The highlight of the week is the homecoming game followed by a dance in Central’s gym.
KEEPING TUITION AFFORDABLE – FUNDRAISING
Involved in raising money since Central’s door first opened, students have sold magazines, candy, jewelry and raffle tickets for everything from cash to cars. The Carnival was also an important yearly event through the 1960’s and 70’s which generated thousands of dollars for Central.
As a private school, raising money has been an essential activity through the years. The Central Roundtable started back in the 1950’s, concentrating on raising funds to keep Central athletics competitive and accessible to all students. The Roundtable dinner and the funds raised focus on all student activities and improvements to school facilities. Mayfair an Auction to Benefit Billings Catholic Schools has become a long standing Billings tradition, occurring the first weekend in May every year. Mayfair has contributed over 7 million dollars to Billings Central and the Billings Catholic Schools, purchasing lab equipment, textbooks, computers, vans, and even replacing windows at Central. This two day event is supported by the Billings community, local parishes and is staffed by over 300 volunteers. Billings Area Catholic Education Trust (BACET) was started in 1973 and has grown to a trust of over 7 million dollars, distributing from its funds over $273,000.00 in 2006. Phone-a-Thon and our Annual Giving Campaign take place every November with the student body of Central contacting all the alumni for financial support, and to enlighten our alumni on what is new and exciting at Central.
The guiding mission of Billings Central Catholic High School has always been to provide an outstanding education in a Christ-centered atmosphere, and that tradition has been the common thread among all graduates from 1947 to the present. The quality of the education is evident in the success of those who call BCCHS their alma mater. Today, they work in a wide range of occupations, including priests, sisters, lawyers, homemakers, doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, engineers and business owners. They serve their communities and parishes in a variety of capacities.
Throughout the last 60 years, there have been several Central students that ranked in the top 2% of students nationwide as National Merit Commended Students, Semi-Finalists and Finalists. They have been accepted into prestigious institutions throughout the country and world, and have also excelled at Montana colleges and universities. Typically, each graduating class has scored higher than the state and national averages in standardized tests like the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Currently over 98 % of our BCCHS graduates enroll in a college or university after graduation.
Central’s enrollment, like other catholic secondary schools in the nation, has fluctuated along with national trend. The largest graduating class was in 1965, with 157 students receiving diplomas and nearly 700 total students enrolled at Central. Although the late 1970’s and 80’s saw a decline in enrollment, numbers at Central continued to rise in the 1990’s. Currently Central has an enrollment of 328.
The administration and faculty has historically been instrumental in carrying out the mission at Billings Central. Since the first principal, Sister Patricia Earaerts, took the off ice at Saint Patrick’s High School, the clergy has been a major part of the educational process. However, as numbers of priests and sisters have decreased nationwide, lay teachers have accepted their roles as Catholic mentors in education. Since that time, the clergy and lay people have worked together to maintain a high level of excellence in education at Central. The first lay principal, Ramona Stout, was hired in 1979 and Central’s current principal Sheldon Hanser, is a 1989 graduate. Central has been fortunate to have numerous alumni come back to Central or the Billings Catholic Schools to continue to teach and mentor our students.
From Physical Education to Counseling, Sister Valerie McGeough, has been teaching and advising the seniors at Central for over 40 years. Sister is the longest standing faculty member at Billings Central. During her years at Central she has coached gymnastics, track and tumbling, along with teaching P.E. to thousands of students. Graduates continue to praise the college guidance received from Sister Valerie.