OCONTO FALLS — In the past, the idea of Lutherans attending a Catholic school was, as Grace Lutheran Church Pastor Gary Olson put it, like cats and dogs living together. It just didn’t happen.
Today, St. Anthony School and Grace Lutheran of Oconto Falls are challenging that mindset to bring everyone in their small community closer to Jesus. With the help of parish funding, children of Grace Lutheran are enrolling at St. Anthony to receive a faith-based education.
“What we’re looking at is not a denominational kind of thing — us versus them — but more of a community-minded type of approach to it,” Pastor Olson said.
There are currently eight active members of Grace Lutheran enrolled at St. Anthony. A portion of each student’s tuition is provided to St. Anthony on behalf of their families through Grace Lutheran’s Benevolence Fund.
St. Anthony Principal Alex Wolf said he and Pastor Olson have spoken at length about how their parishes can continue to support each other, especially since the 2012 fire that destroyed St. Anthony. After the fire, Grace Lutheran immediately opened its doors to the displaced students and staff, giving them a place to continue their lessons until a renovation plan was in motion.
“When St. Anthony School burned down, Grace kind of adopted us into their building to operate as a school,” Wolf said. “We even have just a more practical bond if you will, because the day the school burned, we thought, ‘What do we do?’ Grace said, ‘Our doors are open. Come on in.’”
Fr. Joel Sember said St. Anthony has had Grace Lutheran students since he became pastor in 2010, and the relationship between the churches has been very positive since the fire. He said he truly appreciates the decision of Grace Lutheran to support the school.
“Making the decision to spend money as a parish is always difficult and is always done carefully and with a lot of consultation,” Fr. Sember said. “Every penny matters. I’m extremely grateful that Grace Lutheran values St. Anthony education enough to help support it financially.”
Pastor Olson said there was no hesitation from his church when the idea to sponsor students was brought up. With no Lutheran school in the area, the Grace Lutheran Parish Council voted unanimously to use a portion of its Benevolence Fund to support children attending St. Anthony.
“We’re trying to partner with not only their organization but our families, and encourage them to go ahead and do the things that they are comfortable doing,” Pastor Olson said.
Grace Lutheran member Angie Magnin not only sends her children to St. Anthony, she teaches there as well. The 5K teacher said she loves how the school makes religion a part of daily life by weaving it into every subject.
“I feel like the students get a lot more individual attention there with the smaller class sizes,” said Magnin, who started teaching at St. Anthony this year. “Even myself as a teacher, I’ve taught for 18 years, but I just feel like I’ve grown so much being there, especially in my faith.”
The Lutheran students also attend school Mass with their classmates, where they receive a blessing instead of Communion. Most importantly, they receive the message of their common faith, values and goals with all the other children.
Wolf said a Christian education is a fantastic way to bring entire families closer to Jesus, as students often bring their lessons home and start discussions with their parents.
“The families have realized that to help their children, especially in a society like this, if they want their children to grow up loving Jesus, sometimes putting them into a faith-based school is going to allow for that,” Wolf said. “It’s something that we are very proud of, to be helping all children come closer to Jesus. We are all in this mission together. That’s hands down what we are trying to do.”
Pastor Olson said both churches are focused on ways to better the community as a whole, and the best way to do that is by building on the foundation of all Christians: Christ was born, died for our sins and rose again thanks to God, the creator of our universe, he said.
“It’s not about filling this church or that church,” Pastor Olson said. “It’s about filling the kingdom, and it’s about working together. We’re so much stronger when we work together than when we’re opposed.”