Catholic Schools Week is currently being observed by St. Mary Catholic School in Newton and across the United States. The annual initiative celebrates the tradition of what Catholic education contributes to the community — and St. Mary has a long, storied one.

St. Mary's tradition predates the observance of Catholic Schools Week (celebrated since 1974) itself. In fact, it even predates the Wichita Diocese it is a part of, as the oldest actively-operating school in the diocese opened its doors a full seven years before the diocese — spanning southeast Kansas — was formed.

"What a huge blessing both for ourselves as Catholics, but really the Harvey County community, that we've had this beacon within our community since 1880 — calling all to a Christian, Catholic education," said St. Mary principal Philip Stutey. "Over the years, the mission of it has changed a little bit, but it's always had one thing, and that's the faith."

On top of the history within the diocese, St. Mary was also the first school in Kansas operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, starting the tradition of keeping faith central to the education provided to students — something that continues to shape the mission of St. Mary and other Catholic schools in a diocese rich in history.

"In a Catholic school, everything was framed around what's good and bad and right and wrong, and I think that's a powerful thing that our society needs today when we seem to have lost that sense," said Bob Voboril, Superintendent of Schools in the Wichita Diocese.

"The greatest thing about the Catholic schools is you don't put your faith away, and you make it a part of everything you do," Stutey said.

For Catholic Schools Week, that is even true of the celebration, as the school recognizes its "communities of faith" that includes the students, teachers, parents, volunteers, etc. — whether in hosting a talent show highlighting students' God-given gifts, making thank you cards for volunteers or coming together in worship.

As faith-based education is celebrated during Catholic Schools Week, Voboril noted the ideas behind it haven't changed much since the first such schools were formed in Kansas (before it had even become a state). He noted the saying in the early years, on the frontier, was "next to the church, the school," which allowed the Catholic schools to help form the children in their faith and religious values. Additionally, that close relationship was meant to draw in the families and deepen that investment in Catholic education. It's an investment Voboril noted is not lacking within the Wichita Diocese and hopes is highlighted during Catholic Schools Week.

"My biggest goal is that the children and the families, and the teachers, come to a deep appreciation of what a blessing a Catholic school is," Voboril said. "It's a great time to be grateful for all the blessings that we have in this diocese."

"It's really just a highlight of everything we do within the school, and thanking people for that opportunity," Stutey said.

One of the original school buildings for St. Mary still stands (though it is now used as a parish center) as a testament to its history, but Stutey noted the people — the students — are a part of that as well. Those who have graduated from St. Mary and gone on to greater successes helped laid the groundwork for what the school is today, and are invested in seeing the school's strong tradition continue — something he hopes students recognize during the celebration of Catholic Schools Week.

"I hope what they realize throughout the week is how many people care about them, how many people are rooting for them, how many people are really in their corner," Stutey said. "Having been in Harvey County since 1880, there are people all over the county that when I start to talk to them, either they've gone to St. Mary or they know somebody who has gone to St. Mary. So, really, they have the wrap-around support — everybody's rooting for them and everybody wants to see them successful."