By Eric Mann
After more than 40 years of waiting, families in Baldwin County will have a Catholic high school to call their own, as St. Michael Catholic High School opens its doors in Fairhope this August.
The school, named after the Archangel Michael in the book of Revelation and Mobile’s first bishop, Michael Portier, is located on Higbee Road in a rural section of Fairhope near the intersection of state highways 104 and 181.
Surrounded by cornfields, pastures and catfish ponds, the school’s location reflects the rural nature of much of Baldwin County.
The seeds for the school were first planted in the 1970s, when a local family donated a plot of land in Summerdale to the Mobile Archdiocese with the intention of saving the location for a future Catholic high school.
Eventually, the Archdiocese determined Summerdale may be Baldwin County’s geographic center, but its demographic center was better represented elsewhere. The Summerdale plot was sold, and its proceeds were used to purchase the 40-acre parcel in Fairhope.
For years, Baldwin County parents seeking a Christian high school education for their children have sent them across the bay to Mobile to attend McGill-Toolen, a school with roots dating back to the 1800s.
Fairhope resident Gary Cowles, who graduated from both McGill-Toolen and Spring Hill College, recalled the days when he made the nearly 45-minute trek from Fairhope to Mobile every day for high school.
“I was one of the few people from Fairhope who went to McGill-Toolen when I was a teenager,” Cowles said. “We always wanted a Catholic school here but it just never seemed to be the right time.”
Today, Cowles is the parent of four children, three of whom will attend St. Michael for high school. He said over the years traffic has become increasingly heavier on Interstate 10, to and from McGill-Toolen, so ease of travel to St. Michael will help Baldwin County parents who are unable to commit to the weekday drive.
But for Cowles and other parents, the chance to send their children to St. Michael means more than just an easier commute.
“McGill is an awesome school. I went there, my son goes there. It is wonderful,” Cowles said. “But this isn’t about me and my family. This is about those families who may not be able to get to Mobile every day. Some parents just can’t commit to that every day. This is about those parents who want their children to get a good, Catholic education near their home.
“Jesus will be infused into everything that is taught at this school,” Cowles said.
St. Michael Principal Faustin Weber said the timing was right for the Archdiocese to open the school.
“There wasn’t a diagnosed need until the late 1970s when Baldwin County started to explode, and it is certainly booming again,” Weber said. “I think for a long time there was a concern that a Catholic high school in Baldwin County would negatively impact McGill-Toolen. But McGill is quite strong right now, and I don’t say that just because of their athletic state championships. McGill has an excellent reputation, both academically and spiritually. I think their strength really makes this possible because it won’t greatly impact them.”
It is expected St. Michael will receive most of the students graduating from Baldwin County’s three Catholic elementary and middle schools — Christ the King in Daphne, St. Patrick’s in Robertsdale and St. Benedict in Elberta — which together serve about 700 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
In March, Weber said construction was about 75 percent complete, with staff eyeing a date in July to move in.
While the main purpose of the school is to serve Baldwin’s Catholic families, Weber stressed it will welcome anyone who seeks a quality education for their children.
“This is the right time,” he said. “We are the largest county east of the Mississippi and one of the top two or three fastest growing counties in the state. The need for a Catholic school is becoming more and more apparent.”
Weber is a Mobile native and a McGill-Toolen graduate with a degree from Notre Dame. Between 1989 and 2008, he was the principal, then president, of Montgomery Catholic High School. For the last seven years, he has served as the headmaster of Pope John Paul II, a diocesan school of 600 students in Nashville, Tennessee.
For Weber, St. Michael represents a chance to come home to be near his mother, who still lives in the area. But it also represents a chance to do something very few people get to do. He said the Archdiocese has not built a new Catholic high school since the late 1940s, when it opened John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham.
“This is a very rare opportunity for an educator,” Weber said. “It has been 65 years since the Archdiocese built a Catholic high school. This is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to do this.”
At capacity, St. Michael will be able to hold 350 to 400 students, and have room to expand to hold 600 in the future. While hesitant to estimate how many children will be at the school on opening day, Weber said a number of current McGill-Toolen ninth-grade students have enrolled at St. Michael for the coming year, and they expect to receive the majority of the eighth-grade students from the Baldwin Catholic schools.
This year, St. Michael will open with freshman and sophomore students, two of whom belong to the school’s first PTO president, Heather Drago.
A Daphne resident with two children currently attending Christ the King, Drago is charged with securing school uniforms and vendors for the school year. Because St. Michael won’t have its own cafeteria at first, the PTO must find outside vendors to deliver lunches to the school.
Like Cowles, Drago said the school represents an opportunity for Catholic parents to send their children to a Christian high school in their own neighborhood, with friends who live near them.
“I’m very excited that my daughter will be part of the school’s first freshman class,” Drago said. “I’m also excited because of the great teachers here. They really do bring a lot of experience as well as great faith to the school.”
Weber said over the years, Baldwin County Catholic families have had a difficult decision of whether to send their children across the bay to McGill-Toolen. While many families have done so because they value a Catholic education, their children often sacrifice social factors because they live so far from their fellow students.
“If a kid has school friends who they want to hang out on a Friday night and they have to go to the other side of the bay, that’s not always the best thing,” Weber said.
“It took a lot of good people to get us here.”
When Thomas J. Rodi was installed as the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Mobile in the summer of 2008, one of the first things he heard from Baldwin County Catholics was their desire for a high school in their own backyard.
“When Archbishop Rodi came on board and asked us what we needed, we asked him ‘when can we get a Catholic school in Baldwin County?’ And we just kept asking until he said yes,” Cowles said.
Still, the Archdiocese needed more than just requests from parents and a parcel of flat land. It needed evidence that a Catholic high school was needed in Baldwin County, and it needed proof that the Catholic community could raise at least $9.5 million in a capital campaign.
The Archdiocese commissioned a 2010 feasibility study from Catholic University of America professors Dr. John Convey and Dr. Leonard DeFiore, which estimated that 250-400 students from Baldwin County would enroll in the high school and the fundraising goals could be met. The study also showed an estimated 8 percent of McGill-Toolen students would move to the school.
Further, U.S. Census data showed Baldwin County to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.
After the fundraising campaign, with a pacesetter phase which kicked off in November 2013 and a public campaign which raised $9.5 million from more than 1,400 contributors, the Archdiocese was ready to commit to building the school.
“For more than 40 years people have dreamed of and planned for a Catholic high school in Baldwin County,” Rodi said. “This dream is now a reality. This will benefit the entire community since this school is open for all who wish their children to receive an excellent education and formation in Gospel values, whether they are Catholic or not. This school will be yet one more valuable asset for Baldwin and one more reason for people to take pride in the ongoing development of Baldwin County.”
Roberta Mullek, vice president of the St. Michael PTO, said being part of the PTO has been difficult at times because the school doesn’t have a built-in alumni or parent base yet, but the experience has been rewarding.
The school has its own athletics booster club, band boosters along with the PTO, which provides funds intended to complement what the school intends to provide in the classroom. The PTO has representatives from each feeder pattern school.
Mullek has three children, one who graduated from McGill-Toolen, one who is currently a junior there and one seventh grader who will attend St. Michael. For Mullek, St. Michael is about opportunity.
“It took a lot of good people to get us here,” Mullek said. “We all believe in Catholic education and we believe that children should have the chance to pursue their faith in an academic setting.”
Academics and athletics
When it opens in August, St. Michael will have a 15-member teaching staff, which Weber said was put together after reviewing more than 160 applications.
“We are trying to create a faculty as a whole,” Weber said. “I’m thinking along the lines of having experienced teachers, male and female, to create a faculty with the best people relative to what our needs are.”
The core subjects taught will be history, English, science, mathematics and theology. Students will also be required to take two years of music and fine arts, and two years of languages.
For athletics, St. Michael will begin its first year with junior varsity basketball, football, soccer and volleyball. The school plans to add baseball in its second year.
While there is room for athletic fields on the school’s 40-acre plot, its teams will use nearby municipal fields in its first year. By the third year, Weber said the school is aiming to join the Alabama High School Athletic Association, which requires member schools to have five varsity sports for both boys and girls.
St. Michael’s sports teams — with Cardinals as a mascot and red and white uniforms — will be led by Athletic Director Paul Knapstein, who currently serves as CYO director and girls soccer coach at McGill-Toolen.
“As for student athletes, I am convinced St. Michael is going to be a special place, and I encourage families to enroll their sons and daughters here,” Knapstein said after his hiring. “You can only be first once, and our first athletes will be the founders of our program. That’s something they can brag about forever.”
Mullek said the faculty and staff will be a big draw for the school.
“Once this school opens and people can see the amazing faculty Mr. Weber has brought together, this will be an incredibly attractive school,” Mullek said. “It really is a God thing that Mr. Weber is here and what he has been able to do. The faculty is just amazing, especially for a brand new school.”
For tuition, St. Michael will be on par with McGill-Toolen, costing $7,725 per year for contributing Catholics and $9,625 for non-Catholics.
Mullek said while she is thrilled to be part of the opening of St. Michael, the new school is not about an “us vs. them” rivalry or competition with McGill-Toolen.
“McGill has provided an amazing education and experience for my children, but it is time for Baldwin County to have this opportunity,” she said. “This is about the ability of Baldwin County parents to choose what’s best for them. It is about our children and their ability to get a good Catholic education in their own neighborhood, with their neighbors.”