Tucson - St. John the Evangelist School
St. John the Evangelist could be considered the second mission of the Sisters of Charity in the West because in 1934, Father Victor Stoner asked the Sisters to conduct CCD classes for children at St. John Mission. The Church, modeled after the first church in Tucson, San Cosme del Tucson (1775), was built in 1933 by Father Stoner, chaplain of Veteran’s Hospital, to serve families and patients of the hospital. The growth of Tucson prompted Bishop Daniel J. Gercke to distinguish St. John’s, previously part of All Saints Parish, a separate parish in 1941.
Later, at the urging of Father Joseph Murphy, C.S.Sp. in 1950, the Sisters of Charity were asked to staff a parochial school for the infant parish. St. John the Evangelist parish grew exponentially in the late 1940s – becoming the largest parish in the Diocese of Tucson at the time.
On May 29, 1949, Father Murphy wrote in the parish bulletin, “After prayerful waiting, we received the good news that we will be able to open our school in September 1950. The Sisters of Charity, who have done such a splendid job with our Sunday school children, will conduct the school. Please offer your prayers that God may call some young ladies into their congregation. We shall need more sisters as we grow, and we must try to provide some from our own parishioners.”
On September 8, 1950, “amidst torrents of rain,” Saint John the Evangelist School opened with 104 students, a majority of whom were Mexican-American or Native American. The first faculty consisted of Srs. Helen Marie Haley, Jean Ann Wilburn, and Agatha Proctor. In a letter (1950), one Sister wrote, “Under the firm leadership of Sister Helen Marie, the principal, our little three-roomed school settled down to a happy, successful year.”
In order to travel from their convent on East Michigan Street, the Sisters used a 1935 Chevy donated by a parishioner. One Sister wrote in the Annals, “It was missing a few windows, the upholstery was hanging in tatters, one door refused to open and ‘Steve’ was prominently lettered on one side, but it could travel the desert as well as any gopher. Our experiences with “Stevie” as our pupils affectionately termed the car with an “Hello Stevie” when we drove up in a cloud of dust in the morning, and “Goodbye Stevie” as we departed in the late afternoon, could fill up a book in itself. ” In 1951, the Sisters were gifted a brand new car – Stevie was replaced, much to the chagrin of the Sisters!
In the first Christmas celebration at the school, “[They] all gathered around a beautifully decorated tree in the school patio and each class sang or recited poems for the assembled priests and parents. One assistant priest, Father Roy Burkhart, was missing and when Santa Claus appeared, greatly resembled the missing cleric, even the first graders said , “Thank you, Father,” as Santa handed them fruit and candy.”
Despite often working without blackboards, desks, or ceilings, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill dedicated their time as educators, principals, and guides, fulfilling educational, spiritual, and social service needs for the poor of the parish.
The efforts of our pioneering sisters at Saint John Parish school continued until 1995. Sr. Harold Ann Jones, principal of the school from 1983 to 1995, was the last Sister of Charity at St. John’s.
Fun Fact: Kostka Avenue near Ajo Way, Tucson was named after Sister M. Kostka Donohoe who taught the children of real estate developer, Frank La Mar, in Pennsylvania. He also supplied the Sisters with their first convent in St. John’s parish.