Holy Cross Father Tom Eckert shows off his pie-making skills that helped grow the student scholarship fund and enrollment at St. John Vianney Catholic School in Goodyear. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Holy Cross Father Tom Eckert shows off his pie-making skills that helped grow the student scholarship fund and enrollment at St. John Vianney Catholic School in Goodyear. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

GOODYEAR — Some ingredients remain a baker’s secret, but the most important part of one pie-maker’s recipe for success is clear: it needs faith. Or, to quote the bold black letters in the corner of his custom-made apron: “add Jesus.”

It’s that faith element that had Holy Cross Father Tom Eckert and the school board invested in seeing St. John Vianney Catholic School enroll 40 new students by the start of the school year. He personally committed to achieving half of that goal through his own efforts. Educating youth to be citizens of both heaven and earth is a top priority for Catholic school leaders, especially those associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross.

“There’s nothing that we can do that’s more important,” Fr. Eckert told The Catholic Sun from the kitchen of his rectory.

School was to begin the following day. The pastor knew prospective students were in the pews at weekend Masses all summer. The parish had doubled the number of registered families in the last 10 years, but the school was using less and less space. St. John Vianney could offer two classrooms per grade level, but only needed one.

Turns out that in order to fill the classrooms again, Fr. Eckert would have to fill a few pie dishes first. He started with two freshly-baked fruit pies. The pastor offered them as a thank you to anyone who donated $100 to the school. Funds would cover a student’s registration fee.

He made the pies — crust and all — from scratch just before the vigil Mass using apricots a parishioner dropped off from the farm. As the youngest of 14 children, the priest couldn’t allow the fruit to rot. Five donors lined up for the pies. Eight more donations came in from the remaining weekend Masses. Fortunately, a Jesuit seminarian, who recently taught at St. John Vianney, was passing through Arizona and helped Fr. Eckert with some of the baking.

Fr. Eckert credits his selling point, “and this is my mom’s crust recipe” for the success of what has been dubbed “Padre’s Pies.”

“If I bring Father peaches and a check, would Fr. Tom make me a pie?” one parishioner asked.

The pastor happily obliged.

“I simply asked that when they dropped off the check, they specify in the memo line what kind of pie they wanted,” Fr. Eckert said.

“There’s something comforting when you’re able to create and feed and above all, help the school,” Fr. Eckert said. Plus, the house smells pretty good too, he added.

“The pie-maker,” as his handmade apron reads, spent part of the final day before the new school year began baking an apple and pear pie.

Donors were excited for the school and its potential. Enrollment steadily grew all summer long. It went from 202 to 215 and gained another seven to 11 students each of the following six weeks. The day before school started, it was up to nearly 300. Growth was enough to add second classrooms for the school’s lowest three grades.

The priest gave regular pulpit announcements saying, “We’ve reached this many students and this many pies.”

Those announcements finally convinced several families to apply to the school. St. John Vianney staff also helped them apply for external, need-based scholarships.

Graciela Pedroza wasn’t sure how it would work out financially, but insisted the family’s youngest child go to a Catholic school. She still sees the difference it made for her eldest son.

The St. John Vianney alum is more centered and actively living his faith. Their daughter, who was involved in parish life, but not the school, reportedly drifted away from core Catholic beliefs in college.

Pedroza is proud her sixth-grader is at St. John Vianney — her nephews enrolled too — and thanks God for the blessing of parish donors. She said she would pray for them that God would multiply their donations, confident that God gives back 101 percent.

“They don’t know haw many people they have helped, especially this year. I have seen a lot of new faces,” Pedroza said. “With their help, that’s how they’re forming leaders for the future.”

Fr. Eckert couldn’t be happier about enrollment and how the parish and school have grown closer — even though a doctor did diagnose him with “pie elbow” and gave him the same brace he gives tennis players.