Much has changed for Catholics in Sanford over the past 50 years.
For example, in 1972 there were three churches in the city, each with its own parish and priest: Saint Ignatius in downtown Sanford, Holy Family on the East Side, and Notre Dame in Springvale. In 2006, only one pastor became responsible for leading all three churches. With the closure of St Ignatius in 2010, there were no longer three Catholic churches but two – and over time they were merged into a single entity, the Parish of St Therese of Lisieux.
That’s a lot of variety. As someone who grew up in downtown Sanford, attended Mass and Sunday School at St. Ignatius Church, and got married there, I can attest to such a change. And as someone who now serves on the ward council, I can testify that there are more exciting changes ahead.
With all these changes, however, there has been one constant over the past 50 years: St. Thomas School.
The school opened on the corner of Winter Street and North Avenue in the fall of 1972 and has been a trusted institution educating thousands of students ever since. And this Sunday, October 23, Father Bill Labbe, administrators, teachers, students, their families and others will officially celebrate the school’s half-century.
The celebration begins with Mass at Holy Family Church on North Avenue at 10 a.m. There will then be a special gathering at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum where a new exhibit chronicling five decades of Catholic education at St. Thomas School will be open to the public for viewing. The museum is located at 505 Main Street in Springvale.
When St. Thomas School opened 50 years ago, its future beyond the 1972-1973 school year was not at all secured. The school’s first board had to make all sorts of difficult decisions regarding funding, staffing, facilities, and enrollment.
In fact, it was thanks to the generosity of the first school board that the place got its start in the first place. To quote the late Richard Bergeron, one of the founders, who wrote a history of the school in 2007 to mark its 35th anniversary, it was a “time of great stress and frustration as the struggle continued to preserve Catholic education”.
According to Bergeron, the school once needed $30,000 for equipment and supplies, particularly the cafeteria. The laypeople on the school board proved to be the saviors there: they used their own collateral to sign a loan.
“Despite their own businesses and family concerns, each member was so confident in the importance of the school that they each signed a $5,000 promissory note,” Bergeron wrote.
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The school is the last of its kind in Sanford-Springvale. During her time, St. Ignatius Church provided education for all grade levels, including a high school that closed in 1969. The parishes of Notre Dame and Holy Family also provided elementary education.
The closure of Saint Ignatius High School—along with economic conditions in the early 1970s and a growing shortage of nuns, friars, and priests—worried Bergeron and others about the fate of Sanford Catholic education. Each of the three local councils in the city came together to discuss the idea of combining the remaining elementary schools into one.
This they did in April 1972. With the decision to move on, Sister Therese Berube was hired as the new school’s first principal – a position she held until her death in 1990.
A new school board, consisting of all three priests and one layman per ward, was formed in April and decided that Holy Family School on North Avenue should become the new consolidated school. According to the history written by Bergeron, Father Adrian Palardy is credited with naming the new school after Saint Thomas Aquinas. It was a fitting choice. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of scholars.
And now here we are, 50 years later. On a recent Friday, Principal Jessica Rice and Ericka Sanborn, the school’s Director of Legacy, Marketing and Enrollment, shared what they believe is the secret to St. Thomas School’s longevity.
Sanborn is certainly capable of pulling into it – she went to St Thomas School in the ’80s, now has children of her own who go there and of course there’s the position she holds.
“When I think of what St. Thomas represents, we are blessed to say that Christ is at the center of everything we do,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn added that the school has a “tremendous history of academic excellence,” which is evident most years when Sanford High School announces the top 10 students in a senior year. Many seniors in this lineup went to St. Thomas as children.
“I think that says a lot,” Sanborn said. “Teachers help students find their voice so they feel comfortable exploring their gifts and talents and trying new things. Once that confidence is instilled along with a really strong academic program, students soar. Then we see them making these tremendous leaps – not just academically, but personally, spiritually.”
It all goes back to the school’s mission, Rice added.
“We raise the whole child,” she says. “It’s not just about the knowledge. It’s about what that knowledge does to us as people… It plays a big part in why our students, when they leave here, go on as a whole person.”
Parishioner Claire Auger is the main organizer of the school celebration on Sunday. She has ties to St. Thomas School that go back even further than Sanborn’s – in fact, her ties go back to the very beginning. Auger and her late husband, Gil, sent all four of their children to St. Thomas School, and their eldest even attended during the 1972-1973 school year.
Auger was active in school during these years, her children were students. There was a period when she was a bit reclusive about her involvement — she was a junior high French teacher and spent some of her early retirement years in Florida — but lately she’s really rolled up her sleeves and help out those Keep school active and alive.
I spoke to Auger at her house the other morning. She shared stories about her own Catholic upbringing as a young person and emphasized her support for the children who attend St. Thomas’ today. She explained why volunteering at the school is so important to her, even long after her grandchildren graduated from there.
“I love teaching,” she says. “And I’m very strong in my faith. Part of my faith is evangelization. It’s not like proselytizing. It makes the Christian way of life known and popular.”
Auger fulfills this personal mission by volunteering at St. Thomas School in whatever capacity she is needed in. Like Rice and Sanborn, Auger said she loves the sense of community the school has — and has for 50 years and, she hopes, 50 more.
“It’s just been a part of my life,” Auger said. “I just can’t imagine life without St. Thomas.”
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and reporter for the York County Coast Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.