Its student population stands at 230, but the school is well-known across Phoenix’s six-digit South Mountain community.
- Msgr. Tom Hever, pastor, 1970s
- Msgr. Antonio Sotelo, former pastor
- Mike Brown, football and basketball coach, 30 years
- Michelle Hernandez, various titles, 14 years
- Doris Logan, parish liaison
- Sylvia Stovall, kindergarten teacher, 1969-1998
At 70 years old and at least four generations in, it’s easy to see why many dub St. Catherine of Siena School as “the hub of South Phoenix.” Whether student, parent, staff, alum or some combination thereof, many in the surrounding community have a connection to the school that opened in old Army barracks in what was once a field of alfalfa.
The school grew one grade at a time and — with some planning — permanent buildings emerged. Students filled the shelves of the library when it opened in 1955.
“We have been a community who has stuck together,” said Doris Logan, who was the only non-school employee honored during the St. Catherine of Siena 70th anniversary gala Sept. 14. She did, however, serve the parish for 52 years and was key in nurturing the parish/school relationship.
“I felt if the priests were happy then the people would be happy,” Logan said. She also verified that the more questionable part of her introductory bio was true.
“I did scrub the bathrooms. I couldn’t stand the kids not having a clean bathroom.” She was known to drag the hose a great distance to clean the bathroom and campus too.
Fernando Ruiz enrolled in the mid ‘60s and was the second of five siblings to graduate. He remembers almost 100 percent of his teachers’ names including, the three Sisters of Charity who opened the school and taught grades 1-2.
“They impacted me greatly, the spiritual part of my life, teaching us the importance of who God is, praying. That’s the difference between a Catholic school and a public or charter school,” Ruiz said. He knows his parents sacrificed to send him and his siblings to St. Catherine. He credits them and his teachers for preparing him for life at Brophy College Preparatory and later Loyola Marymount.
Ruiz remains a parishioner at St. Catherine and has seen three of his children teach at the school — his daughter Xochotil Ramirez is now principal — and half of his grandchildren attend. One graduated in May.
“St. Catherine was always the soul of south Phoenix. It set the direction for leadership and spirituality in this community,” he said.
Alfred Garcia is in his fifth year as a transfer student and has already proved that to be true. Despite being a bit of a newcomer, peers voted him as student council representative last year. He proceeded to launch the Rosary Club and saw it grow from five to 45 students. The then seventh-grader loved seeing peers grow in spirituality.
Garcia is now council president. After serving dinner and dessert to gala guests, he told the small crowd that the school has helped him become more confident, polite and an overall better person. “As a future alumni, I hope that I will be sitting where you’re sitting knowing that I have made a difference,” Garcia said.
Two people honored for concretely making a difference were longtime coach Mike Brown and Class of ’82 alumna Michelle Hernandez, who went on to hold a handful of titles.
Coach Darnell Chavez, the current athletic director, launched the Coach Mike Brown Scholarship Foundation. Named after the former football and basketball coach who saw roughly three decades worth of field and court action, the foundation will use proceeds from snack sales and other efforts to ensure cost is not a barrier for athletes.
A religious sister asked Brown to help at St. Catherine. “I kept coming back. Nobody told me to leave. I was accepted so much by the community,” he said.
Most elementary schools reserve athletics for grades 5-8, but St. Catherine organized a soccer league about eight years ago for fourth-graders and younger.
Administrators honored Hernandez for the legacy that she continues to build. She has supported St. Catherine’s since 1990, first as softball coach when her nieces and nephews were enrolled, then school parent and later classroom and front office volunteer, before ultimately joining the payroll in that position 14 years ago. Hernandez is now the business manager and has nearly doubled the percentage of students on financial assistance from 27 to about 50.
“She’s the person that people go to in their time of need, if they need a family face,” said Ramirez, principal.
Both women described the gala as a trip down memory lane with shared memories and separate “then” and “now” photo slide shows set to music enlivening the school’s seven decades of spirituality. Ramirez called the gala a time of community, family, faith and tradition noting that students have been praying on campus for 70 years.
“The students are very reverent. There’s the utmost respect for the Mass, for the Eucharist,” Ramirez said. “It’s also family. Even if they’re not blood relatives, there’s this connection to another person.”
Someone whom about half of St. Catherine students across history can connect over is Sylvia Stovall. She taught kindergarten from 1969 until 1998.
“I never learned to count past 10,” so they couldn’t promote me, quipped the gala honoree.