Saint Mary School Celebrates 60 Years

Daring Young MindsSaint Mary School has been Educating Emerald Coast Children for 60 Years

By Enocha Van Lierop

The classroom photo is a typical one. Children in school uniforms sit at wooden school desks. Boys with rumpled clothing flash impish grins. One boy slyly holds his bandaged finger up for the camera. Girls dreading the thought of being caught with a weird expression try to look prim and proper.

Simply looking at these children’s faces, one would think this was a class from any modern Catholic school. But this class photo wasn’t taken yesterday; it was taken in 1966, 20 years after Saint Mary School opened its doors to the children of Fort Walton Beach.

The school originally opened in 1946 after a request from Bishop Thomas Joseph Toolen of Mobile, Ala. Until Saint Mary was opened, any family wishing their children to receive a Catholic education had to send them to the Sacred Heart Convent School in Pensacola. By the 1952 school term, around 200 children were attending Saint Mary, which had four sisters on the faculty. Since many local and military families were excited about the prospect of their children attending Catholic school, a waiting list soon grew.

In order to meet the demands of a growing community, a new campus was needed. On May 6, 1959, ground was broken and blessed for the new Saint Mary School. The new school opened on Sept. 8, 1960, for grades 1-6, with the classrooms for grades 7-8 being finished later that month.

Over the years, Saint Mary School has continued to grow. The faculty and students have garnered much recognition in the community. In 2005, the school was designated a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite the change of administration over time, the mission of the school has remained the same. Part of that mission is to recognize and accept each child’s personality, talents and limitations, and to develop these according to individual abilities. Also, the school always has sought to encourage children to achieve the best they can and to instill a desire for further education.

H. French Brown III, a former student and now senior vice president of First National Bank and Trust in Fort Walton Beach, said he firmly believes his time at Saint Mary had a positive effect on his life.

“Attending Saint Mary School enriched my childhood and firmly established the values that I use daily in my adult life,” Brown said. “The small classes and the dedication of the faculty provided for a large family environment, more so than just that of a school.

“Many of my classmates have gone on to become very successful and prominent in their accomplishments. I felt strongly enough of my Saint Mary experience that both of my children were enrolled there from K-4 until they graduated as eighth-graders.”   

In honor of the school’s 60th anniversary, a celebratory Mass was held at Saint Mary Catholic Church on Sept. 21. The Most Reverend John R. Ricard spoke, merging a message for the anniversary and the Feast of Saint Matthew. Current students, along with Monsignor Michael Cherup, honored former students and faculty for their contributions to the school. The Mass also marked the beginning of a year-long series of activities to further celebrate the school’s 60 years.

The school now is planning to expand once again with the addition of the Father Mullins Parrish Life Center, which will include a new cafeteria, meeting rooms and athletic facilities.

Principal Regina Nadicksbernd said she is happy to be a part of a school that looks to the future.

“Saint Mary School has been part of Okaloosa County for 60 years and enjoys a reputation for academic excellence,” she said. “The mission of the school is to provide the best education possible and to help prepare our students for a faith-filled future.”

From its humble beginnings to its proud 60th anniversary, Saint Mary School has sought to provide the area with a quality education. It is the hope of parents, alumni and faculty that the new addition will further this mission in order for future generations to enjoy the same care.