Magazine article Momentum

Small Population/Big Territory

Magazine article Momentum

Small Population/Big Territory

Article excerpt

Quite possibly, the words of the headline are the most accurate ones that describe rural life and Catholic schools. Our school enrollments typically are small and the regions we serve tend to be particularly large. For example, in my home state of Montana, we have more than 147,000 square miles, ranking us number four on the list of "large" states. We also have 900,000 folks that call Montana home, ranking it as the 44th most-populated state. We are a hearty bunch, partial to big skies, tall mountains and wide-open spaces. In other words, we cherish our legroom. Statistically, there are only six of us living in each square mile.

Montana is also home to 120,000 Catholics served by two dioceses. And dotted throughout the state, there are 22 Catholic schools, educating approximately 4,000 children in 12 different communities. These schools are located in both the larger cities as well as smaller towns. Our biggest school is a Catholic high school with 330 students, located in Billings, the state's largest city. Approximately 350 miles to its northwest is Browning, a community of about 1,000 residents, on the Blackfeet Reservation and home to one of our smallest Catholic schools, with 60 students.

All told, our Catholic school's average enrollment is 180 students. Enrollments are small and, without a doubt, the low numbers pose serious challenges. However, the most difficult adversity facing our Catholic schools is the miles that separate us. Historically, this has always been the case.

In the 19th century, Montana was an untamed and wild land, a place reserved for the confident, the venturesome and the courageous. It was the perfect setting for a Jesuit missionary priest named Jean Pierre DeSmet. In 1840, he said the first Catholic Mass in the Montana Territory and then led the charge for Catholicism to transform the landscape. With tenacious resolve, missionaries seeking souls and Europeans seeking mother lodes tamed the Big Sky.

By 1900, more than 100 Catholic institutions freckled the region, including dozens of schools that educated children from all walks of Montana life. However, the schools as well as the local parishes were typically "stand alone" establishments. In effect, they became Catholic islands, separated by hundreds of miles from the next Catholic island. They adapted. They improvised. They shared. They survived because of the embedded "can do" spirit that exists in rural life. …

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