There was a time, not many years ago, when the future appeared uncertain for Saint Anthony School in San Antonio.
Attendance had dwindled to 153, and there was talk of shutting down the elementary school.
“At that point, when the enrollment was really low, a group of parents rolled up their sleeves and went to work in every way they could (to) get the word out about the school,” said Will Plazewski, whose son represents the fourth generation of his family to attend Saint Anthony. “It was amazing that even though the school has been here for 129 years, how many people in East Pasco County had no idea that it existed.”
Parents spread the word, and a 15-second commercial at the Cobb Grove 16 in Wesley Chapel also helped attract students, he said.
Sister Alice Ottapurackal, the school’s principal, attributes the turnaround to a higher power.
“The enrollment went up — God’s special blessing,” she said. “Truly, I believe, it’s the power of prayer.”
Now, enrollment stands at 213, and prospects for future growth are so bright that ground was broken on Nov. 17 for a new building. The new structure will accommodate 270 students.
Instead of lamenting the closure of a school that enjoys a rich heritage, Saint Anthony School is now celebrating a new chapter in its history. About 200 people turned out for the groundbreaking festivities, Plazewski said.
Construction on the new 17,905-square-foot building is expected to begin Dec. 1, and be ready for use by next fall. The new three-story brick structure will be situated on a space now occupied by five portable classrooms.
Even with the new building, the school will continue to emphasize academic excellence while teaching the Catholic faith, the principal said.
“All day long, we are teaching them about Jesus,” Ottapurackal said. “It is so important, especially nowadays, when you don’t see a lot of support in society about faith.”
Helping children form their faith is fundamental, the principal said.
“Once you have God in you, the other things will come,” Ottapurackal said. “Our focus is on whole child education, not only intellectual, but spiritual, moral, social, (and) emotional aspects of the children.”
Teachers know their students well, the principal added.
“Our teachers are well-connected with them because of the family atmosphere we have here,” she said.
Saint Anthony School serves kindergarten through eighth grade. Tuition is $4,375 for practicing Catholics and $5,075 for others. Since 2000, the school has produced 14 valedictorians and salutatorians at area high schools, Plazewski said.
Parents who are interested in pursuing a Catholic education for their children should not be discouraged by the tuition, Ottapurackal said. Assistance is available in various forms.
“Catholic education should be for any group of people, whether they are rich or poor, regardless of race,” the principal added.
Unlike previous buildings that were constructed on the school campus, this one will be an additional building, not a replacement. The existing brick structure, built in 1922, will remain and will be used for some school functions.
The new building will be the fourth in the school’s history. The current building replaced a two-story structure built in 1899. The original building was a 12-by-24-foot structure constructed in November 1884.
Not only is Saint Anthony School the oldest parochial school in the diocese, it’s also one of the oldest Catholic schools in Florida, Plazewski said.
“It is by far the oldest school in Pasco County of any kind,” he said. “The only thing that’s close to it is Saint Leo University.”
San Antonio was founded in 1882 as a Catholic colony. The following year, a widowed woman named Cecilia Morse moved into the community with her six children.
When she inquired about the school, she was told it could wait until there were more settlers, Plazewski said. Morse reportedly responded that the “minds of the children now here, can’t wait.”
With that, the widow began teaching 14 children, including six of her own, in her kitchen.
Today, Saint Anthony School draws students from San Antonio, Dade City, Zephyrhills, Brooksville, Land O’ Lakes, New Tampa and other communities.
And, its new building sends a clear signal that the school intends to be there for many years to come.
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