For more than a century, Felician Sisters have cared for children in the Milwaukee area. They operate St. Joseph Academy, formerly known as The Child Development Center of St. Joseph. The only elementary school in North America, sponsored by the Felician Sisters offers a unique program for infants through third grade.
According to Sr. Mary Brendan Bogdan, director of missions and development, the academy is so successful, they are looking to construct a 28,000-square foot addition to accommodate its needs.
“The addition would include 14 classrooms, office spaces and bathrooms,” she explained. “This would be very helpful in that we will be able to serve more children and families. We will have improved facilities for our program, a new gymnasium, dedicated science lab, music room and art room. There will be room for outreach programs for the adult community, such as English courses and computer instruction.”
If approved by the Common Council, the $4 million addition would continue the Felicians’ legacy of caregiving.
In 1907, the founder and pastor of St. Hyacinth Parish on Becher Street, Fr. Hyacinth Gulski, asked the Felicians to erect and operate an orphanage in Milwaukee for children primarily of Polish and German heritage.
After helping to raise $100,000 to construct their first building, called the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum, 50
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orphans, many with physical handicaps, arrived the next year. The orphanage included a 50-bed infirmary staffed by a registered nurse.
For 60 years, the sisters cared for the orphans at their initial building, located at 3249 S.18th Street. The building also served as the main house of the Felicians’ Mother of Good Counsel province, founded in 1910. The “motherhouse” later moved to Chicago, where it is now a “central home” for Felicians who minister primarily in Wisconsin and Illinois; the Provincial House for Felician Sisters in North America is located in Beaver Falls, Pa.
In the late 1960s, as foster care became more prevalent, the sisters were licensed to operate the South Day Care Center of St. Joseph.
“Here they served children 3 years old until 12 years of age,” said Sr. Brendan. “In 1968, the sisters closed the orphanage.
During the years 1967-1973, the religious order provided a residential treatment site for children between the ages of 9-18 who were wards of the state.”
In 1999, then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland recognized the original building had served its purpose and asked the sisters to consider moving to the former St. Gerard Parish.
The sisters agreed and the South Day Care Center of St. Joseph moved to its current location on the northwest corner of Oklahoma Avenue and 16th Street.
“New construction was added to provide for infants and toddlers, and the center now accepts babies 6 weeks and older,” said Sr. Brendan. “The sisters changed the name to the Child Development Center of St. Joseph to better reflect the emphasis that would be put on providing quality education. In April 2009, we added an Early Headstart Program. Our legal name is St. Joseph Academy, and the Child Development Center is the early child care program of St. Joseph Academy.”
The early child care program is accredited through the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, “YoungStar,” with the highest rating possible of five stars. The center serves approximately 180 children per week with an additional 40 school age children in the before and after school programs.
In September 2009, the Child Development Center of St. Joseph opened a Milwaukee Parental Choice School with the addition of a K4 classroom.
There are currently three K4 classrooms, three K5 classrooms, three first grade classrooms, two second grade classrooms and one third grade classroom. The academy is accredited through AdvancEd/North Central School Accreditation. Enrollment is 256 and families are already enrolling students for next year when the school will open its initial fourth grade classroom.
While the project is in its planning stages, Peter Giersch, managing director for Cathedral Consulting Group LLC, the company providing the development services, anticipates the school addition will be completed for the 2015-16 school year.
“The demand for St. Joseph Academy’s particular product is growing at a phenomenal rate and therefore the need to expand this facility is imminent, and we need to seek input from the community as far as the best way to do that in the space we have,” he said. “The obvious answer is with an addition and, thankfully, we have the local alderman (Terry L. Witkowski) behind this.”
While the Felician Sisters are trying to raise funds, Cathedral Consulting is in the silent phase of developingfundraising efforts and looking at possible leadership to assist with the project.
“The sisters have always gone where the need is and one of their mottos is to identify the need and service the need, and with that they are moving forward in faith and trying to arrange financing, because this has to be done,” said Giersch.
He is amazed at the efforts of the five Felicians and 72 employees at St. Joseph Academy in providing quality education.
“The demand for their particular education process is tremendous and that is what is so unique about the school,” Giersch said. “The Child Development Center is like a day care on steroids. They utilize brain-based learning beginning at 6 weeks old. When this project is finished, a baby can start there at 6 weeks and stay until fifth grade and that is the big ‘wow.’ They do an incredible job.”
St. Joseph Academy’s mission is a faith-based educational organization, and the Felician sisters desire is to educate children to be successful life-long learners and problems solvers.
“We are guided by the core values of respect for human dignity, compassion, justice and peace, transformation, and solidarity with the poor,” said Sr. Brendan. “We partner with families and community to fulfill this mission.”
Parents are excited about the proposed expansion because they will be able to keep their children in the school through fifth grade. For school secretary Beatriz Robles, the school is perfect for her family.
“I am so happy to know that the school is growing so much and that it is still a one-stop shop,” she said. “I work here, my kids go to day care and school here. I have a 2-year-old in early childhood education, a 5-year-old in K5 and then I have two other children, aged 10 and 11 and they go to a private school down the block.”
Robles credits the staff with the success of the school, noting they are committed to quality education, are well educated and provide great lesson plans.
“The staff is also bilingual and that helps as my kids have a speech delay in between languages,” she said. “I am from Mexico and my kids picked up much of my Spanish.”
Demographically, the majority of children are from Hispanic and Asian backgrounds, with the remainder being African American, multi-cultural and Caucasian. With a 93 percent mobility rate, the majority of children remain at St. Joseph Academy until they age out of the program.
“We have a very close-knit community and great parental involvement in activities,” said Robles. “I love it here. In the beginning, I worked part-time and then moved to a full-time position and it is wonderful.”