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After 100 Years St. James Has Roots in Falls Church

The sunshine shone on the brass of the St. James Catholic School Band students’ instruments, as they celebrated the concluding event of the centennial celebration on April 30. Packed with alumni and current students dressed in their plaid green uniforms, a Paperback Maple Tree was blessed and a poem was read, commemorating 100 years of excellence at the school.

St. James Catholic School has been open to the Falls Church community since 1906 and is currently guided by Principal Sister May Anne Sweeney. The Catholic school was started by The Sisters of Perpetual Adoration with two teachers who offered classes at just $1 per month for grade school and $2 for high school.  Now, over 600 students attend the school and the feeling of excitement amid the fresh air of spring gave way to a delightful ceremony.

“Trees represent growth, nurturing,” Sister Sweeney said. “They supply sturdy shelter, and the blossoms provide joy and nutrients to the world. The tree stands as a holy cross out side our church. It is planted on a grassy mound, showing love and sacrifice.”

“It was only fitting that a tree be honored and planted and poem read, on account of Arbor Day and Earth Day coinciding with National Poetry month,” Secretary Frances Durst said. Eighth grader Joanna Borman, who won the tree poem competition, stood behind the podium among the chirping birds and Route 7 traffic, to recite it.

After the blessing of the tree, an aluminum cylinder previously filled with items was rested against the paperback maple’s thin trunk. The contents of the cylinder would be revealed in 25 years, as a way to look back on items that were meaningful at the time.

The Fun Nun Run-Walkathon for the IHM infirmary preceded the celebration, where 400 students and faculty raised money for elderly nuns who have tended to the school since 1923.

The fundraiser typified the kind of far reaching roots the school has in the Falls Church community. St. James was accredited by the Virginia Catholic Education Association and recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education in 1999. However, that impressive history nearly ended close to 70 years ago.

During the depression of the 1930s, the school’s future was threatened. With repairs needed for the convent, the sisters of The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) thought closing the school was the only answer. However, Sister Mary Salesia kept the school afloat by opening up several additional boarding schools in order to produce a new stream of revenue. Several houses along Broad Street and Spring Street were converted, and the Villa Maria Academy was started, serving as the main source of income that helped them keep St. James School open.

The 1950s and 60s were known as the school’s peak years. Enrollment increased to 2,000 and St. James Catholic became the largest Catholic School in Virginia. Classes from Kindergarten to second grade went to half-day shifts to accommodate the influx of students during those years. Alumni of that time can remember 13-14 buses lining Spring Street twice a day to pick up and drop off students. Not until the 1990’s did the enrollment level off. With extensions and renovations made in the mid to late 90s, the school had expanded in size as well.

Mike Ballard, an alumnus of the 1950s, remembered the 12 masses that took place daily to accommodate all the children. From a large family rooted in Falls Church city, Ballard enjoyed his time at the school and often remembered helping the nuns around the convent.

“They were avid baseball fans, the nuns, and I can remember sitting in class listening with them intensely to the World Series,” he said.

Though, perhaps he wasn’t “helping” in every instance.

“One day I brought a garter snake and chased a nun into the covenant only to see half dressed nuns,” Ballard recalled with a laugh.

An alumni reunion last September for the centennial celebration welcomed two of the oldest students remaining in Falls Church. Anne Donovan Goodson, who came with her daughter, was part of the class of 1922, while John “Vernon” Ballard, from the class of 1937, was the second oldest of the alumni to attend the event. Vernon Ballard, Mike’s great uncle, is an usher at St. James and has been collecting donations every Sunday during mass since he retired in 1979.

“I only had three teachers and three classrooms when I attended St. James,” Vernon Ballard said.

Still able to recall his grade school teacher’s names, Sister Henrietta Marie stands out among the rest: “She could kick a football farther than anyone I knew.”

Today the school continues on under new stewardship. Though still brand new to her duties as principal, Sister Mary Anne Sweeney — she has only been at St. James for a little over a year — has true admiration for her students.

“I have a phenomenal school before me, academically and generously,” Sister Sweeney explained. “But the eighth grade class has impressed me the most. They are excellent role models and all 76 of them give back so much to the community.”

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