Eva Nieman, left, and Alessia Freemont, third-graders at the beginning of last school year when this photograph was taken, work on an assignment during class at the St. Augustine Indian Mission School in Winnebago. COURTESY PHOTO

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St. Augustine Mission breaks ground for new school

For members of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes, breaking ground for the new St. Augustine Indian Mission School in Winnebago was an occasion of special significance.

It was an opportunity to honor the past and celebrate a vision of hope for the future of a school that’s been serving the educational and spiritual needs of Native American children in northeast Nebraska for 111 years.

Representatives of both the Omaha and Winnebago tribes joined Father Mark Beran, director of St. Augustine Indian Mission School; Deacon Donald Blackbird, school principal; and Nebraska First District U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry at the snowy Oct. 19 ceremony to kick off the $10.5 million construction project, slated for completion in 2022.

“Our Omaha cultural teacher (Pierre Merrick) led us in a beautiful prayer that kind of showed the history of the project, a blessing for the grounds and then the groundbreaking itself,” said Father Beran, who also serves as pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Winnebago, St. Cornelius in Homer, St. Joseph in Walthill and Our Lady of Fatima in Macy.

“Some people from the community were there who have grandchildren in the school, and their families have gone here all 111 years the school has been here,” he said. “They’re probably on their fifth generation. It was special for them.”

Founded in 1909 by St. Katharine Drexel, St. Augustine Indian Mission School is the only Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Omaha created specifically to serve the needs of Native American students and the only Catholic institution in the state of Nebraska founded by a canonized saint.

Father Beran noted that St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia-born heiress, philanthropist, religious sister and educator, founded about 60 Native American Catholic schools in the United States in addition to several other institutions for African American people. She died at the age of 96 in 1955 and was canonized in 2000 by St. Pope John Paul II.

St. Augustine Indian Mission School currently serves about 100 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, nearly all of whom are from the Omaha and Winnebago tribes. Students are taught both the Winnebago and Omaha languages along with their cultural heritage.

The new school, being funded through an ongoing capital campaign, will replace an outdated and deteriorating facility that was never intended to house classrooms. It was originally designed to be an auditorium, gymnasium and warehouse storage area.

The building’s inadequacies limit the use of computers and technology. Challenges include noise distractions, a lack of windows, poor air circulation, mold and a lack of security at some entrances. The building, which has major structural issues, was given a lifespan of only five-to-seven years following an inspection by an engineering firm in 2019.

Deacon Blackbird said construction of the new school will send a strong message to a community where both unemployment and poverty rates are significantly higher than state and national averages.

“Building a new school in our community really shows the commitment of the archdiocese for the Native American ministry in northeast Nebraska,” he said. “It shows there’s a commitment to the people of the community and that we value the community within the archdiocese.

“Right away, it’s going to help our kids know that we feel they are worth the effort and the sacrifices that are being made by the donors in order to make this building possible.”

Father Beran said the new building, the fourth structure to house St. Augustine Indian Mission School since its inception, will bolster the learning experience and be a source of pride for the community.

“The new building will be an advantage in a lot of ways,” Father Beran said. “First of all, just having a safe building – one that is structurally sound. Little things, like cutting down background noise so students can hear their teachers better.

“Technology improvements will allow every student to learn at their own pace and progress as rapidly as they can,” he said. Also, we’re going to have our first cafeteria in the school. Currently, kids have lunch in the basement of our church (St. Augustine).”

Both Father Beran and Deacon Blackbird believe the improved learning environment will give children in the impoverished community a greater opportunity to reach their academic potential and strengthen their connection to Jesus Christ.

“To break the cycle of poverty, every person has to believe in themselves – that’s where our faith comes in,” Father Beran said. “To know Jesus is to know that you’re loved, that you’re forgiven and that you have hope. Nobody can give that to you, it just has to be a grace from God. So we try to create an environment where our kids know where they are in God’s eyes.

“Only then, when they find hope from God, can the education we give them provide them the tools to practically live that out – the tools to figure what their gifts are and how they can use those gifts to make their lives, the lives of their families and the lives of their tribes better.”

Deacon Blackbird, a St. Augustine alumnus, said the new school will be a step up from the building where he and his siblings attended classes during the 1980s and ’90s. Something that hasn’t and won’t change, however, is the religious presence and guidance for students, he said.

“I think the big take-away for me is having the Missionary Benedictine Sisters here within the community,” he said. “They continue to be engaged in the community and in the school. ”

The sisters have served the St. Augustine Mission community since 1945 through teaching, parish ministry and pastoral care. They also operate a thrift store in Macy and a food pantry in Walthill.

Deacon Blackbird added, “And to have priests who are committed to being in the school building and being engaged with religious instruction in the school building, those are examples of people living out their faith with joy.”

A life-giving, reliable source of revenue

How does the St. Augustine Indian Mission School, which serves an impoverished population, support tuition assistance and other vital school needs while also building a brand-new school building?

Apart from a capital campaign raising funds for the new construction, the school relies on its investment funds, which are managed by the Catholic Futures Foundation of Northeast Nebraska.

The funds act as a savings for day-to-day expenses, said Father Mark Beran, St. Augustine Indian Mission School director. “Especially during this year of the pandemic, it just gives you that safety net going into the future.”

A service of the Archdiocese of Omaha, the Catholic Futures Foundation is the product of the recent merger of an educational foundation that was established in 1975, and a parish foundation established in 1993.

It provides a consistent source of revenue to archdiocesan parishes and schools that can be incorporated into their budgets so they can confidently pursue their mission, said foundation director Tim Bogatz.

The funds being managed for St. Augustine Indian Mission provide direct support for school operations, he said.

“That fund can be used however the school deems is most urgent,” Bogatz said. “That’s one of the benefits of this type of fund – they’re able to use it toward tuition assistance, for different resources for in-classroom programs, building needs, whatever they need to, so that they continue to operate and provide a Catholic education to those students.”

As of September, Bogatz said, the Catholic Futures Foundation was managing over 200 funds and has distributed $30 million since the inception of the educational foundation in 1975, with the majority of those dollars supporting Catholic education through tuition assistance and scholarships.

“The foundation also has a grant program that helps support Catholic education in other ways – supporting special projects, retreats, religious formation – things of that nature,” Bogatz said.

“There’s also grants that go toward the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, your adult religious programming and religious formation that occurs more at the parish level outside of that school setting.”

Foundation donors can earmark how their donations are to be used, and new donors are encouraged.

“The easiest way right now is to give us a phone call (at 402-827-3762) and we can talk about what kind of benefits you want to support,” he said. “Then we can help make sure that gift applies to the fund that’s closer to the giver’s heart.”

Regarding St. Augustine’s new school construction, the ongoing capital campaign is helping the school avoid dipping into its investment funds.

That campaign has reached $10 million – $500,000 short of the desired goal of $10.5 million.

“The other half-million is for things like furniture, desks, computer equipment and running computer lines – that kind of stuff,” said Father Beran.

Donations to the capital campaign can be made online through the St. Augustine Indian Mission website, www.staugustinemission.org. A brochure explaining the project and the capital campaign is also posted there.