By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Many Catholic families make sacrifices to give their children a religious education. But a group of southern Illinois students go the extra mile – into a different state – to keep that education going through high school.
The students come from small communities across the region – places like Marion and Murphysboro, Herrin and Anna. The closest diocesan high schools are about 90 miles away. But Notre Dame Regional High School, which is in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, is about 65 miles away from the furthest school.
“The distance of Notre Dame is almost too much – it’s just doable,” says Melissa Coello of Carterville, who already has sent four of her eight children to Notre Dame.
Coello and other parents take turns driving a 15-passenger bus they purchased to transport the kids.
The total commute takes about 90 minutes, meaning the first kids get picked up at 6:45 a.m. The driver usually stays in Cape Girardeau all day, to be ready to pick the kids up after school.
It can be a grueling routine, particularly on cold, dark winter mornings, Coello says. But she and other parents say the education offered at Notre Dame is worth all the sacrifices they and their children make.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Teresa Machicao-Hopkins, of Marion, whose daughter graduated from Notre Dame in 2016 and whose son just finished his sophomore year. “I think my kids would be different people had they not gotten the Catholic education they had.”
The parents began working together about seven years ago to explore the possibility of a new Belleville diocese high school in their area. Those efforts didn’t pan out, but in researching their options, the group learned more about Notre Dame.
Coello, who had been homeschooling two high school-aged children, was reluctant at first. She worried about the distance, and wondered whether the school would provide the truly Catholic education she and her husband were looking for.
“My daughters and I went down to visit and I was just blown away by this school,” she says.
A Defining Incident
She describes an incident that happened while they were there: The school’s principal turned on the intercom to ask everyone pray for someone who was undergoing a health crisis.
“They literally stopped in the middle of class time and prayed – the whole school,” Coello says. “By the end of that visit, I was thinking, whatever it takes, I need to get my kids into this school.”
Jeff Ripperda of Murphysboro has been with the group since its beginning, even before his children were old enough to attend Notre Dame. While he touts the school’s academics, its reputation for guiding students to become faithful Catholics is even more important to him. Notre Dame has been named a Catholic Education Honor Roll School by the Cardinal Newman Society.
“Notre Dame has a saying: ‘Give us your child and we will return to you an apostle.’ And they are really great at that,” Ripperda says.
A group of four students began daily treks to and from Cape Girardeau in the fall of 2012 in a used minivan their parents had bought. A fifth student would be added over the course of the school year.
The group has continued to grow, to the point where they needed to switch to the bus. This past school year, 16 students attended Notre Dame from southern Illinois, so older students took turns driving their own cars.
They’ve formed a non-profit group, Families for the Advancement of Catholic Education (FACE), which raises money for the vehicles and their upkeep. Fundraisers have ranged from chicken-and-dumpling dinners to trivia nights and golf scrambles. Between these events and the driving, it’s not a commitment taken lightly, the parents say.
“When people are interested in joining, we make it real clear, this is just a group of parents working together,” Coello says. “We’ve had people join who have backed out when they saw how hard it was. It’s hard. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, you probably won’t last long.”
Parents who drive find ways to make their time in Cape Girardeau productive. Some who are teachers or lawyers bring paperwork with them to work on. Others teach or go to classes there.
The driver generally waits for students to complete afterschool clubs and organizations, so the kids can have a normal high school experience. Southern Illinois students also play sports for Notre Dame, despite heavy practice schedules that require extra carpools.
Louisa Coello graduated summa cum laude on May 20, along with two other southern Illinois students. She says that while the commuter experience might not be for everyone, she has loved her time at Notre Dame.
“The teachers, my friends there are irreplaceable to me,” she says. “My teachers have gone out of their way to help us, given us extensions when we couldn’t get things done because of riding the bus.”
Parents also credit support from their home parishes. Many of them – St. Mary Catholic Church in Anna, St. Joseph in Cobden, St. Andrew in Murphysboro, St. Joseph in Marion and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Herrin – pay some or all of the parish assessments to Notre Dame for their students who attend.
“They’re not required to do that – they’ve made the commitment to do that for these kids,” Machicao-Hopkins says.
Coello says the Diocese of Belleville also has given financial assistance to the group.
Monsignor Thomas Flach, the pastor at St. Joseph in Marion, has served as the unofficial pastor of the commuting high schoolers. He blesses the bus and the students each year, and has made trips to Notre Dame to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
Msgr. Flach says he’s been impressed by the school and by the local families who work so hard to send their children there.
“It says something about the faith and commitment of the parents and the students,” he says. “It says something loud and clear about the value of a Catholic education.”
The coming school year marks another milestone in the growth of the FACE group. With an early estimate of 21 students attending Notre Dame, the group plans to add a second vehicle. That means twice the number of drivers will be needed.
It’s a daunting prospect, but Coello says their faith is up to the task.
“We keep believing God’s going to pave a way for us.”