Chattanooga high school looks to the future as it celebrates its history
By Dan McWilliams
The historic Chattanooga high school, which has witnessed reconstruction, the transition from candles to electric light, the creation of the telephone, the shift from horses to automobiles, two world wars and many other conflagrations, and the invention of rock’n’roll, continues to generate graduates who now are embarking on careers in the age of computer technology and rocket science.
Guests of the school at its milestone birthday bash included hundreds of alumni and about a dozen Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, the community that founded Notre Dame in 1876.
The evening’s celebration began with Mass with Bishop Richard F. Stika at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul before continuing with a party and dinner at Stratton Hall. Dinner attendees included Mother Ann Marie Karlovic, OP, prioress general of the St. Cecilia Dominicans, and Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, the Diocese of Knoxville’s superintendent of schools.
“Today, with joy, we celebrate 140 years of faithful service of Notre Dame High School,” Bishop Stika said in his opening remarks at Mass. “We gather together with the Dominican Sisters, who were part of the foundation with Father [Patrick] Ryan. There’s much to be thankful for, for all the many minds that have been touched by faith and encouraged to blossom into people of faith who share that faith and intellect with others, and so we thank God for that.”
Bishop Stika celebrated the Mass, with concelebrants including former Notre Dame principal Father Pat Connor, Father John Dowling of the Notre Dame class of 1968, and Father Mike Creson, part-time sacramental assistant to NDHS.Father Mike Nolan, class of 1978, who is pastor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland, gave what the bishop later called an “extraordinary homily.”
Notre Dame graduates filled the roles at Mass. NDHS President George Valadie (’71) welcomed the assembly at the beginning of the liturgy. Mike St. Charles (’74) and Sister Mary Evelyn Potts, OP (’59), gave the readings, while Deacon Hicks Armor (’69) proclaimed the Gospel. The gift bearers were Margaret Hubbuch (’47) and Adele Baker (’50). A choir of Notre Dame students sang at the Mass.
Father Nolan began his homily by quoting from the school’s fight song, and he addressed his words to the school itself.
“Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. Happy birthday, girl. One hundred forty never looked so great!” he said. “Thank you for teaching us wisdom. Thank you for strengthening and structuring our faith. Thank you for serving and showing us how to serve. Thank you for the blessing you are to our community of faith and our community at large.
“Tonight, we celebrate you. Tonight, we wake up the echoes cheering your name. Onward to victory for at least another 140 years.”
Notre Dame began when Ulysses S. Grant was president; Wyatt Earp was working in Dodge City; Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone; and Gen. George Custer met his match, Father Nolan said.
“From your very beginning, you opened your doors to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” he said. “Your childhood wasn’t easy. At barely two years of age in 1878, yellow fever struck, and struck hard. Eighty percent of the population fled, and of the roughly 1,800 who remained, 336 citizens lost their lives. Roughly one in five succumbed to the deadly scourge. The good sisters stayed, and you became a hospital and an orphanage.
“The beloved Father Ryan stayed, literally laying down his life in the cause of humanity.”
Father Ryan is now a Servant of God, his sainthood cause having been opened earlier this year.
Notre Dame “survived and thrived” in the years to come, Father Nolan said, “necessitating moving your classrooms from the first floor of the convent and the basement of the church into your first freestanding school in 1886 at a cost of $25,000 at the corner of Eighth and Lindsay, where the present church parking lot is.”
NDHS “continued to grow, and since then, the people of God have continually met your needs for their children,” Father Nolan said.
“In 1926, your 50th birthday, under the leadership of Monsignor Francis T. Sullivan, you received a thoroughly modern building to the tune of $150,000, about 200 feet up Eighth Street from your former location. Your enrollment blossomed from 170 students to 440 under the principalship of Father ‘Rocky’ Driscoll.”
One more move would come for NDHS as it settled into its present home.
“The Catholic community, with Monsignor Frank Pack and Father, later Bishop, James D. Niedergeses leading the charge, came together to create your current campus nestled at the foot of Missionary Ridge in Glenwood, where you have continued to serve since 1965,” Father Nolan said.
Notre Dame has been “served well through a myriad of dedicated sisters, clergy, lay men and women, faculty, staff, teachers, and coaches,” the homilist said. “What is constant is that you remain the same school, albeit with different faces.”
NDHS has withstood “numerous economic downturns, panics, recessions, and depressions,”
Father Nolan said. “You have weathered the storms of two world wars and countless regional wars. Some of your graduates have given their lives in service of our country in Vietnam, Korea, and both world wars. Over 80 of your children have gone on to holy orders or consecrated religious life.”
Notre Dame “led the way in Chattanooga and became the [city’s] first school to integrate back in
- You served as a role model for other schools to emulate when integration became mandatory,” Father Nolan said.
NDHS’ motto, “Veritas Vincet Omnia, ‘truth conquers all,’ is your heritage, guide, and destiny, recognizing God’s call, receiving God’s Word, preaching God’s Word, sending forth your charges to spread the Good News with your graduates now in all 50 states,” Father Nolan said.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Stika said there was one thing Father Ryan did that “should be proof of canonization.”
“One of the smartest things he did was to invite the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia to come and staff the school,” he said.
The bishop said “we could spend a lot of money on billboards promoting all the values of Notre Dame, but we would have to buy billboard after billboard after billboard for all of these blessings throughout the 140 years. You’re the walking billboards.
“If your life was touched or was influenced, if you did something great in life, to meet your spouse or to have a child, or in terms of education, or just a person who realizes more deeply the importance of prayer — if God has touched you through Notre Dame, it’s up to you to promote it, to your children, your children’s children, and your neighbors, because it is a blessing.”
Bishop Stika referred to the “Touchdown Jesus” mural at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
“A touchdown for all of us is a constant understanding of the importance and the value of Catholic education, and especially here in Chattanooga for our schools: for St. Jude, for OLPH, and for this high school. Please continue to promote it, because it’s very important.”
At the dinner, Father Jim Vick, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga, spoke before giving the opening prayer.
“Tonight, we continue to give thanks for this gift called Notre Dame High School, truly a place where our Catholic Christian heritage is passed on from one generation to the next, in academics, athletics, and social-action activities,” he said. “History is a precious gift of identity, of mission, and of empowerment. Since 1876, this was and is Notre Dame High School’s gift and mission to us.”
Mother Ann Marie talked about Notre Dame being the St. Cecilia Dominicans’ first mission after their own founding in 1860. Father Ryan, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, asked the sisters to come and found a Catholic high school.
“It was in January 1876 that our sisters were asked to come here, and actually we had only been in Nashville for about 16 years,” Mother Ann Marie said. “We were still a young foundation, but I do think that was a time of really courageous people because the Civil War had just been fought, on these grounds, really, and yet the people here had enough faith and courage, and really a desire to pass on their faith to their kids. They said, yes, in spite of the difficulty, we want to pass on our faith to our kids, to build a school, at a time which must have been a hard time.
“So the Church, with the people, asked us to do this. Our sisters were sent, and actually there were four of them that came: Sister Ann Hanlon, Sister Teresa Fritch, Sister Dominica Hoffman, and Sister Angela Robinson. They arrived on Jan. 6, 1876. That really started our history together. It was really that day when those sisters arrived that we became very much intertwined with this city and with Notre Dame High School.”
The Dominican Sisters “have always had a special love for Notre Dame and for Chattanooga, and the reason is that it was the first place we went after we started the place in Nashville,” Mother Ann Marie said. “We started what is now our motherhouse in Nashville and St. Cecilia Academy. The sisters felt courageous enough to say, ‘Well, I think we can do something else.’ They came here, and we are very grateful, and, as always, this school and this city of Chattanooga have always had a special place in the hearts of our sisters.”
Sister Mary Evelyn recalled her time at Notre Dame and how it influenced her vocation.
“I went through Notre Dame for 12 years. That’s when it went from grades one through 12,” she said. “It was a special time. We had a sister in every classroom. I didn’t really have a lay teacher, which they’re wonderful, until I got to high school and Rosie Cosner. She taught me algebra. But most of the time, everybody else was a sister.”
Sister Mary Evelyn’s “education to me, of course, was a continuation of what I was taught at home, which was the faith. But then you learned it more systematically at school, and you lived it, because it was a time when people were living their faith, so much more than today. The sisters taught it so well that when you went home, your parents reinforced it.”
She said, “Obviously my vocation grew out of that, because I admired the sisters. It was kind of like a child — I wanted to be like them. But then when you get into high school, you start thinking, well, there are other options: marriage, a career, those kinds of things. But the sisters helped me discern what it was God was wanting me to do.”
Elizabeth Maounis (’02) is a Notre Dame grad who gave back to her school. She said her NDHS education formed “definitely a lifelong connection with my teachers. I felt like my teachers took a special interest in me and always were leading me to find my vocation in life, and ultimately that led me back to Notre Dame. I went back and taught English for a number of years, and I directed admissions as well.”
She said “a life of learning the faith and continually growing in the faith as an adult” were inspired by her time at NDHS.
Notre Dame also is a family tradition for Ms. Maounis.
“My grandmother went to Notre Dame. My mother went to Notre Dame, so I’m a third-generation,” she said.
Sister Mary Marta called the 140-year existence of Notre Dame “pretty powerful.”
“Here in Chattanooga, there are a lot of non-public schools, so a lot of private schools in the area,” she said. “And yet Notre Dame is the oldest non-public school in this area, so to say that for the Catholics, who took on education that many years ago, that speaks a lot to the belief in educating our children.”
Former principal Father Connor said, “It’s always wonderful to come to Notre Dame.”
“Notre Dame was a great part of my life,” he said. “I was here as principal and loved every minute of it. There’s a real commitment among these people. Notre Dame was kind of a sign of unity in the Chattanooga community. It always brought us together. In my days here, so many times citywide Catholic events would take place at Notre Dame. The parishes all came together. So many good things happened as a result of Notre Dame.”
Mr. Valadie, who also served as dinner emcee, welcomed the Notre Dame faithful.
“On behalf of the entire Notre Dame family — here, not here, living, and deceased — we’re thrilled that so many of you could be here tonight. We’ve waited 140 years for this,” he said.
Also attending the dinner was the school’s second-longest-tenured lay principal, Perry Storey (1996-2013). The longest-tenured lay principal, the late Jim Phifer (’49), who led NDHS from 1974 to 1993, was represented at the dinner by son Tommy (’76).
Also attending the dinner were Father Ed Steiner (’73), rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, and Father Mike Johnston, a former NDHS teacher, director of the Search program, and assistant principal (1972-79).
Mr. Valadie engaged in a little boasting at the microphone, mentioning three Chattanooga private schools and a hospital.
“We are older than Baylor,” he said. “We are older than McCallie. We are older than Girls Preparatory School. We are older than the University of Chattanooga. We are older than Erlanger (Hospital). We are older than electric light. And just to throw it in, we are older than sliced bread.”
Speaking at the dinner, Bishop Stika said, “We are so privileged to have the Dominican Sisters back at the high school. There’s just a special atmosphere, a special feeling, when you have religious in the high school, as well as with the lay staff, as well as parents who are so involved. Any time I visit Notre Dame and I’m in the hallways or at the football game awhile back, you just see that spirit.”
The bishop mentioned Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, in which the Blessed Mother said, “Do as He says.”
“I know that is the philosophy of Notre Dame, to do as Jesus says, to trust in Him,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop talked of “one of the values of Catholic education.”
“Secular schools can’t talk about Jesus, the bread of life; they can’t talk about the Creator, God. They can’t talk about the power of the Holy Spirit or the Blessed Mother or the saints. They can’t talk about faith, and when you can’t talk about faith, there’s a component that’s missing.”
Bishop Stika said, “We have much to be proud of.”
“In the name of the founding bishop and Archbishop [Joseph E.] Kurtz and all the priests and the deacons and the religious scattered throughout the diocese, for all those people who believe in the authenticity of Catholic education, I just want to say congratulations: ad multos annos, many more years of Notre Dame High School.”
Mr. Valadie mentioned a long-serving NDHS Dominican sister familiar to many in the audience at Stratton Hall.
“In case you missed it, just to clear up, Sister Jane Frances was not one of those [founding] sisters. How many people actually had Sister Jane Frances?
“Sister Jane Frances served at Notre Dame in five different decades, and that goes back to the 1930s. I know [wife] Nancy’s dad graduated from Notre Dame in 1936, and he used to tell us about having Sister Jane Frances. Sister Dorothea — she taught in four different decades at Notre Dame.”
One current Notre Damer may equal Sister Jane Frances’ run, Mr. Valadie said.
“Longevity at Notre Dame is a great thing,” he said. “When the people stay and invest so many years, it’s just a tribute to the school. Our current assistant principal is John Mullin. John is a graduate of 1979 and has taught at Notre Dame since the day he got out of UTC, so he now has taught in four decades” (a statement followed by rousing applause). “If I can keep him until 2020, he enters the ranks of Sister Jane Frances.”
Since Notre Dame’s “origin with those first four sisters, 145 different sisters have served Notre Dame, including the two who teach for us now,” Mr. Valadie said.
Mother Ann Marie took to the microphone and said, “It is great to be here.”
“This is a really good party,” she said. “It’s a Notre Dame party, and there’s a special spirit. You can pick up the spirit of a place really quickly. And you know what? I like it. It’s real, it’s fun, down to earth — I love it.”
The Dominican superior said she saw a sign in the NDHS gym that was inspirational.
“There was a sign up there, and it said, ‘just do it,’” she said. “And then I’ve been reflecting today when our sisters ‘did it,’ and when your ancestors ‘did it,’ it wasn’t too long after the Civil War. It wasn’t too long after people lost homes and lives, after they lost their money, and they wanted to build a school. At St. Cecilia, we actually went bankrupt after the Civil War. So we knew what it was like to follow those years. Parents couldn’t pay their tuition.
“And yet they came, they asked us to come, and our sisters said, ‘Yes, we’ll just do it.’ And the good people here who wanted to pass on their faith to their kids, it was important to them. They could have done other things with their money, a lot of money that they had already lost, and hard-earned money at that time. But they said, ‘Let’s just do it,’ because the faith is important to us. We’ve got to pass it on to our kids. These are courageous people. These are people who have really good values.”
Mother Ann Marie said she is “proud to call” those founding sisters and families “our ancestors.”
“This is the stock you come from. It’s the stock we come from,” she said. “And it’s why we know how to have a good party, by the way. We don’t have to be stick-in-the-muds; we don’t have to put on any kind of airs. We can have a really good party. Because we know what it is to just do it, just get out there, have courage, and do it.”
The intertwined histories of NDHS and the Dominican Sisters “are beautiful,” Mother Ann Marie said. “It makes us relatives. It makes us close relatives. … Let us be courageous. Let’s make this school even better. Let’s make this faith even deeper, by our choices, by our lives, and by just doing it. Happy birthday, Notre Dame!”
Mr. Valadie introduced all of the Dominican Sisters present at the dinner, including Sister Margaret Mary, head of the Theology Department at Notre Dame, and Sister Mary Rebekah, a Notre Dame teacher.
Mr. Valadie announced the oldest male and female grads present at the dinner and awarded each a Notre Dame shirt. Elizabeth Agnes Gang Garrigus (’41), who will turn 93 years young in December, was the oldest grad attending.
“I’ve accomplished a lot by being here,” she said of her role as elder stateswoman.
She said her NDHS education “meant everything to me. I went to St. Cecilia first and went back to Notre
Dame and graduated from Notre Dame. Everything I am is what I have learned at school.”
Will she wear her NDHS shirt?
“I’ll try,” she said with a laugh.
Jack Payne (’46) was the oldest male graduate present. He said his NDHS days “mean the world to me. Good bringing-up, the nuns — just a good influence.”
“I particularly remember Sister Jane Frances,” he added.
Mr. Valadie announced the classes with the most members present at the dinner — several classes were well-represented. He also read a proclamation from Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam that proclaimed Oct. 6 as a day of recognition for Notre Dame.
At the end of the dinner party, Sister Mary Marta blew out the candles on a birthday cake for the school as the alumni sang the NDHS fight song.
Five current Notre Dame juniors spoke of their experiences in attending the 140-year-old school.
“It just shows that this school is so great and so family-oriented, and to have that going on for 140 years is something special,” said Luke Eckler. “It really shows that there is a lot of history at this school, and there is a lot of good that has been going on for so long, and for it to be, I think it’s the oldest private school in
Chattanooga, it’s pretty cool to be a part of that.”
Sarah Polickoski said, “I just think it’s really incredible that the school has such a long legacy, and that they are able to carry out these traditions for so long, because Notre Dame is definitely something special in that there are so many people who are fifth generation of Notre Dame going here. It’s just amazing that they’ve been able to uphold the Catholic tradition but also the tradition as a family and as a community with the alumni.”
Rose Albert said the anniversary “shows the tradition and excellence in Notre Dame, and it really shows that Notre Dame has been a long-standing entity of great education.”
She said she is glad to be a student there.
“I love it. I am so happy that I can be part of such a wonderful institution,” she said.
To Izzy Willingham, the NDHS anniversary “means
140 years of community and tradition and upholding the Catholic faith and just being a great school in general.”
She said she definitely has pride in attending the school.
“Oh, my, yes, I very much do. Whenever someone asks me where I go to high school, I am so pumped to tell them that I go to Notre Dame. It is a big tradition, I think. We hold up so many great values and morals, and I think our students are stand-up kids, and I’m proud to be here.”
Pamela Avendano-Rubi said the anniversary “shows the rich history that the school upholds, with the different variety of students and how it’s such a tightknit community that it’s continued to progress over the years. The legacy in it is just really impressive and just very entertaining to see.”
Pamela said it is an honor to carry on in the footsteps of those students who came before her, “just being one of the many who’s been through the doors of Notre Dame.”
Mr. Valadie has been president of the school since 2013.
“It’s a real honor to get to be president or principal here at the time that this happens,” he said. “I play an insignificant role in it. It’s 140 years of alums, sisters, priests, faculty, students, and families — they’ve all pitched in to make this happen. I just happen to be here on the day that it happens. It’s going to be fun; it’s going to be enjoyable; and we’ve tried to make it meaningful as well.”
Each of the Notre Dame students interviewed said he or she was proud to be at the high school.
“I am, too,” Mr. Valadie said. “I am a graduate. My wife is, and all of our family are. I think that comes with students appreciating knowing that they leave with a good education in so many areas, knowing that they go to a school where they’re held to a pretty high standard. I’m glad that they feel that way.”
Notre Dame “always has” trained the next generation of leaders, Mr. Valadie said.
“There have been many, many, many great people come out of Notre Dame who have gone on to lead in a variety of areas, the Church as well as civically,” he said.
Mr. Valadie said there “absolutely” is a weight on him regarding all the principals who have gone before him in 140 years.
“I think there have been 40 previous administrators over all of that time, and they’ve set a very, very high bar, and certainly I am doing everything I can to try to maintain, if not help it get better and better,” he said. “That’s what they always did.”