St. Joan of Arc Catholic School celebrated for its impact on generations of students

Julie Perrault is a “Joaner” for life. She grew up in the Westgate neighborhood of Omaha and attended St. Joan of Arc school from 1977 until 1984.

“I am still in touch with many classmates, and we often share memories of being a ‘Joaner,’” Perrault said. She especially remembers her fifth and sixth-grade teachers, Miss Young and Miss Chrisler, who she said took a special interest in her.

Perrault worked with St. Joan of Arc’s current principal, Kayleen Wallace when the two were at Mary Our Queen Catholic School several years ago. Perrault, now principal at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic School, calls Wallace “a mentor and a friend.”

Julie Perrault and Kayleen Wallace pose for a picture before the Mass celebrating the school’s rich history. STAFF PHOTO

It has been 40 years since Perrault graduated from St. Joan of Arc, but she still has fond memories.

“I loved everything about that time,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was definitely a community.”

Perrault’s sister, Gina Greder, said she is still best friends with several classmates from the Class of 1983. “For my family and me, it was truly the best place to grow up. I will continue to sing its praises forever.”

Founded in 1958 by the Sisters of Mercy, the school closed at the end of this school year. Archbishop George J. Lucas celebrated a Mass in celebration of the school on May 30, fittingly the feast day of St. Joan of Arc. A reception followed in the cafeteria for former students, teachers and current and past parishioners. They were treated to displays highlighting milestones from the school’s more than 65-year history.

Current and past school families and parishioners gather to celebrate the school’s rich history and view displays created in honor of its many milestones throughout the past several decades. STAFF PHOTO

A display of pictures from the summer carnivals held on the parish and school grounds. STAFF PHOTO

A display of pictures from the summer carnivals held on the parish and school grounds. STAFF PHOTO

Father Frank Jindra is the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish which remains open. The school building will continue to be home to the Omaha Catholic School Consortium’s Dual Language Academy, which has operated there since the fall of 2021.

Kathleen Spethman, now Pallesen, and her six siblings attended the school. Although she graduated in 1980, she still remembers most of her teachers and the principal at the time, Sister Marian.

“What a great community it was,” Pallesen said. “We ran all over the neighborhood and would randomly stop in the church to light a candle. That was a big deal.”

The seven Spethman siblings have countless memories of the school, including kickball games and jumping rope on the playground that divided boys and girls, getting “smart pills” (candy) before spelling tests in first grade and the teacher’s smoking lounge.

While it is sad that the school is closing, Wallace, who has served as its principal for the past 14 years, said, “We knew it was coming when we got to under 100 students.”

St. Joan of Arc Parish was formed to support families moving into the Westgate and Westridge neighborhoods. Operating an elementary school was an important part of its mission. St. Joan of Arc school flourished under the oversight of the Sisters of Mercy, with an enrollment of over 300 students at times.

Area demographics changed in the 1990s, with many residents staying well after their children left home. Families who did move into the area were smaller and less likely to join the parish or send their children to the school. The result was declining enrollment, and tuition could no longer cover the school’s operating costs. While St. Joan of Arc Parish stepped in to support the school’s continued operation and increasingly subsidized the costs, this was not feasible long term.

In 2018-2019, 99 students were enrolled in the school. At the end of this school year, there were 35 students and 13 teachers. Next year, enrollment was projected to drop to the mid-20s. The small number of students meant that the school could no longer provide the vibrant academic and social environment that students deserve.

Just as St. Joan of Arc school has taken care of its students for generations, it also ensured that all students who remained until it closed this year have a Catholic school of their choosing to call home next year. Those students will receive financial support to attend those schools until they complete eighth grade.

Maureen McKinstra, pictured here with her parents, Eileen and John, will attend seventh grade at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School in the fall. STAFF PHOTO

After the initial shock wore off, Wallace and so many others were able to reflect on all the beautiful memories they had of the school and the people who had helped to make those memories.

“We wouldn’t have such a nice little school if we didn’t have such a nice little parish,” she said. “We’ve taken care of this little group of kids and most of the teachers, I believe, are staying in Catholic education.”

Wallace said she plans to remain in Catholic education in some capacity as well.

In his homily, Archbishop Lucas reflected on what the school has meant to the parish.

“We give thanks to God for so many years – several generations now – of parish life here at St. Joan of Arc Parish and all that it has done for so many people. In a particular way, we remember that the parish school has been such an important part of the life of the parish and has had such a powerful impact in the lives of thousands of students, hundreds of families, over all these years.”

He also thanked the faculty and staff who have led the school since it opened in 1958 and those who have most recently been “part of the practical life of operating the school and making it an excellent school.”

Archbishop Lucas mingled with guests at the reception in the school’s cafeteria following Mass. STAFF PHOTO

Vickie Kauffold, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Omaha, also expressed her appreciation to the many people who helped make St. Joan of Arc an incredible place for children to learn and grow in the faith.

“I’m thankful for all the teachers who have lived their vocation as Catholic school teachers in the classrooms at St. Joan of Arc, for the families who have made the commitment to provide Catholic education for their children, and the students who have been a part of this beautiful school’s history,” she said. “I pray that the spirit of St. Joan of Arc will always be in the hearts of her graduates.”

Archbishop Lucas reminded those present that although the parish school is closing, its impact will live on.

“The people who’ve been formed at Saint Joan of Arc will still be leaders,” he said. “They’ll have the opportunity themselves to make a sacrifice for members of their community, their families, their parishes, following the good example of so many here.”

Following Mass, teachers and staff were invited up on the altar to be recognized and given a blessing by the archbishop.

Archbishop Lucas blesses the school’s staff members following Mass. STAFF PHOTO



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