Sr. Mary Peter Duyck helps Lillian Neidiver, Elizabeth Lonberger and Maison Belcher during a science project at St. Francis School in Roy. The school is marking its centennial.
Sr. Mary Peter Duyck helps Lillian Neidiver, Elizabeth Lonberger and Maison Belcher during a science project at St. Francis School in Roy. The school is marking its centennial.
ROY — Sister Mary Peter Duyck can gaze out the window of St. Francis School here and see the farm where her father was born. Dozens of her students are learning and playing where their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents learned and played decades ago.

St. Francis is a rare country Catholic school, where the playground borders a working farm field.    

"I came to teach because I knew about the faith in this community," says Sister Mary Peter, a slim and bespectacled woman with a passion for science. She's a member of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows and lives at the order's Beaverton convent. Each morning as she drives to Roy and passes the old family farm, she prays for the people, especially the children.  

St. Francis School marks its centennial this year. A celebration is set to begin with 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Sept. 16. Archbishop John Vlazny will be on hand with priests and nuns who attended St. Francis or served at the parish. A luncheon will follow along with burial of a time capsule, recognition of the oldest living graduates and distinguished alumni awards.

Links to history are everywhere here. Those who enter the school's front door immediately see a large cross, a statue of Mary, a figure of St. Francis, pictures of the pope and the archbishop, and memorials to graduates who died in World War I and World War II.

"We wanted a small community for our kids," says Jacquie Van Hoomissen, parent of two St. Francis students. "If you are really part of a community, everyone participates. You know everybody when you walk through the door."

Her father, Tim Dierickx, attended school in the old building and was one of many men who helped build the current school in 1951. The Dierickx family name is at the bottom of a window in St. Francis Church.

Van Hoomissen herself graduated from St. Francis in 1989, went on to Banks High, the University of Portland and then the University of Georgia before landing a job as a UP biology professor. She's now department chair.

Loretta Blatner's five children attended St. Francis. "I like the stability, the sharing of Catholic faith," says Blatner, the school secretary. "Students leave here with good study habits." It's common for St. Francis parents like Blatner to pitch in at the auction, bingo and dozens of other events each year.

Students attend Mass each Friday, sitting in multi-age groups. The older students help younger children pay heed.

The school balanced on the brink of closure in 2004 with just more than 50 students enrolled. The pastor even announced the decision in a letter. But parishioners drew on their old Dutch-Belgian tenacity and refused to let it happen. They still donate and volunteer so heavily that St. Francis continues with a comparatively few 90 students.    
When it came time to upgrade the playground in 2007, parish men came forward to do the work. Parishioners donated so much at an auction that Ramsperger could buy 24 computers.

Staff also step up to handle many tasks. For example, the principal tinkers with the old furnace on chilly mornings.

"In studying the history, I have been most impressed by the dedication and generosity toward the church and the school," says Diane Ramsperger, a former teacher and parish education director who has led St. Francis since 2004. With images of Mary and Mother Teresa on the wall, Ramsperger's tiny office is also the storage room for school sweatshirts, books and paper.

In kindergarten on this day, Giavonni Lucero and Lucas Meeuwsen are quietly learning the alphabet, matching letter-shaped magnets to writing on a metal board. They help each other politely. Teacher Lauren Krigbaum, freshly graduated from the University of Portland,  wants her students to love learning. To achieve that, she has designed a lot of hands-on activity. In religion class, kindergartners will learn prayers and how to bring belief into everyday life.  

First and second graders are walking about their room with clipboards, taking a survey of what they see. Later, teacher Stacey Fisher will begin lessons on confession and Eucharist. Second graders are preparing to receive the sacraments and they are full of enthusiasm.

On the wall in the 3rd and 4th grade classroom, images of Jesus and George Washington face each other. After prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, two girls step forward to take lunch orders. In a landslide, chicken nuggets win the vote. A few minutes later, the students begin religion class and learn that Jesus studied books of what we now call the Old Testament.

In the grade 5-6 classroom, students are learning place value of large numbers and decimals. Students eagerly raise their hands to have a go at reading expanses of digits. On the wall is a crucifix with a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux: "Why should God be loved? Because he first loved us."

Seventh and eighth graders are learning about endothermic reactions and ionic compounds. To demonstrate both, Sister Mary Peter will have them mix salt and ice and describe the chemical reaction. Along the way, the youths will use the chilly brine to make ice cream. At the recent Valley Catholic Science Fair, St. Francis students submitted 11 entries and took home six trophies.  

Mary Van Lom, who teaches junior high here, says it's important to make learning enjoyable. It helps when teachers love the subject themselves, Van Lom explains. In religion, seventh and eighth graders focus on church history and the life of Jesus.
In the spring, 15 eighth graders will graduate. That's one of the largest classes in years.

"I'll miss it," says eighth grader Anna Klein, who transferred to St. Francis in third grade. "It's a great education and kids are nice here. The teachers care a lot. You stand out here."

Jaime Evers, who will graduate in the spring after attending since kindergarten, says popularity troubles are not an issue at St. Francis.

"We get religious education and stricter values," says Evers. "There is a dress code and people don't compare how much money someone makes."

Klein and Evers, who are friends, aren't above a little innocent mischief. One of their fond memories of school is playing baseball in the girls' washroom, using a rolled-up play script as a bat and an eraser as a ball.

Father Michael Vuky, the pastor here and in Verboort, says a school brings youthful energy to a parish. "It reminds you of the goodness of ministry," the priest explains.

His broad goal is to have children develop a love for the church, especially the Eucharist. He's proud of what he calls "my" students, and likes it when they help lead tours for prospective families. People inevitably are impressed with the articulate, polite youngsters.

When Father Vuky hears about the days before he came, when the school almost closed, he marvels at how the people of St. Francis saw the flip side of crisis: opportunity.

"People stepped in to renew the focus on the kids," he says. "They knew what was important."

Dorothy VanDomelen Nielson, born in 1915, is the oldest living alumna of St. Francis of Assisi School in Roy. Currently a resident of Maryville Nursing Home on the campus of the Sisters of St. Mary or Oregon, Dorothy remembers her school days as if they were yesterday.

Her family farmed 60 acres about a mile east of Banks. Most of the families in the rural community farmed, and the children walked to school. Dorothy, the third of 11 children, journeyed three miles to school, and along the way was joined by other children, many of them her cousins.

At that time, the schoolhouse had two classrooms on the main floor and one on the upper floor that could be converted into a stage and makeshift auditorium. But it had no water. An outhouse for students was accessed by walking across the wooden sidewalk toward the convent.

The basement of the school, where the furnace was housed, had a dirt floor.  Dorothy was enrolled at St. Francis from first through eighth grades, graduating in 1930. She received her diploma from Banks High School in 1934.

Her mother was Wilhemina (Minnie) Vanderzanden VanDomelen, whom she describes as “at the center of everything” in those days.

Her older sister was Sr. M. Ermelinda VanDomelen, SSMO.
— Danielle Tomich contributed to this story.