Butte’s Catholic education heritage actually goes back one-hundred-twenty-eight (128) years ago. In 1881, Montana was still a Territory, and not yet a State. Butte was a wide open, tough mining town. With the increasing number of Catholic miners, mostly Irish, they wanted proper education for their children. The Sisters of Mercy were the initial teachers of the Butte kids in the early 1880’s for a brief period.
Shortly after the Sisters of Mercy left Butte, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who also came to Butte in the 1880’s, took over the education of Butte’s children. The Sisters of Charity initially started their work at St. James Hospital, and in 1887 they started teaching children in St. Patrick’s church. Not long after that, St. Patrick’s parish built a school adjacent to the church and opened it in September 1889. Hence, St. Patrick's is considered the Mother Parish -- where Catholic elementary and Catholic high school classes were first taught in Butte. In 1893 they established a high school.
The Catholic population was growing fast, resulting in the need for additional parishes. So, St. Patrick’s Parish was followed by the opening of St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in 1895, followed by Sacred Heart in 1901, St. Mary’s in 1904, and Holy Savior in 1907. St. Joseph’s and the Immaculate Conception parish schools started in 1908, and were taught by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They, like the Sisters of Charity, were a wonderful group of dedicated women who gave much time and talent to the Mining City. Each of these early seven parishes had a grade school, along with St. Patrick’s, St. Lawrence and Sacred Heart parishes having their own high school.
In 1907, the priests and sisters of Butte, in consultation with Bishop Carroll, decided to provide one city-wide Catholic high school for boys and girls instead of each parish having its own; thus emerged Butte Central High School. The word “Central” was key meaning one and located in the central part of town for all who wanted a Catholic/Christian high school education. All Butte Catholic elementary schools would feed students into this one Central high school. At the time, Butte had the honor of being just the second Catholic central high school in the United States.
The idea of a “Central” Catholic high school, fed by the 8th grade graduates of many different parish schools, was a new concept. With the Bishop’s blessing, the Butte parishes purchased an old rooming house for miners at the corner of Montana and Quartz. In September 1908, the new high school was open. One-hundred-eighty students (180) enrolled that year, and were taught by the Sisters of Charity. The first superior was Sister Mary Syra Keiley and Father S.J. Sullivan was Principal.
The nuns taught in a building with very little furnishings. One of the sisters who taught there wrote the following: “Seats were improvised of boxes, boards, logs, and discarded primary double desks, to which some full grown adolescents had to accommodate themselves. A couple of borrowed stoves served as a heating plant, of which the boys cut and hauled the wood.”
Old Central was renovated (again) in the summer of 1913, and an addition built that allowed the high school to accommodate four-hundred (400) students, almost twice the number that could be taken care of in the previous five years.
Bishop Carroll appreciated the efforts of the Butte parents and parishes to establish such a good high school, but hoped there could eventually be separate Central high schools for the boys and girls. He thought it would be best if the boys were educated as a group, taught by religious men; and the girls educated as a separate group, taught by religious women, such as the Sisters of Charity. The Bishop wanted the Irish Christian Brothers to teach the boys, and tried for several years to bring them to Butte but initially to no avail. Bishop Carroll was informed by the Brothers in 1917 that the earliest possible date the Brothers could come to Butte would be in 1922. The Bishop took this date as a certainty, and proceeded with plans to build a new school in Butte for boys.
In 1921, Brother Hennessy, Superior General of the Irish Christian Brothers informed Bishop Carroll, “There are not enough Brothers to staff the school in Butte in 1922 as you wanted, or for a long time to come.” This saddened the Bishop, but he did not give up. He wrote back to the Superior General “we are actually building the boys school now (1921) and we want the Brothers to be part of it.” So in 1921, the Bishop and the Butte priests announced a specific opening for Boys Central for September 1924.
The Butte drive to build the school at Idaho and Mercury streets had been very successful, and the building was well under construction. In a letter from the Bishop’s to Brother Hennessy, he informed the Brother the date to open had been set, and “please send Irish Christian Brothers to teach here. The priests and people of Butte are getting very restless.” The Superior General of the Irish Christian Brothers finally sent word to Bishop Carroll in January 1923, “We are interested in Butte, but can only send one Christian Brother.”
Meanwhile, the existing co-ed Butte Central at Montana and Quartz was bulging at the seams. The enrollment at Central High School, in 1923, was 650 students, in a building set up for 400 students. This resulted in the priests and sisters having to refuse admission to one-hundred-fifty (150) other students that year, because there was no room for them.
On April 21, 1924, the Irish Christian Brothers signed a contract that would send four brothers, and they would support the September 1924 opening of the new boy’s high school. The school started with the freshmen and sophomores only, and increased over the next two years to all four classes. In 1926, there were two Butte Catholic high schools, with the girls being taught at Girls Central, in the Old Central high school on Montana and Quartz; and the boys were taught at Boys Central, at Idaho and Mercury. Even though separate, it was still “Butte Central.”
In September 1951, a new Girls Central high school building was opened on the corner of Park and Idaho streets. The new Girls Central quickly developed its own unique character. The girls had a full sized gym with locker-rooms and showers.
The Bishop, as early as 1967, learned there would be considerably less sisters available to staff schools throughout the Diocese, including Butte. Sacred Heart parish school was closed that year, and St. Lawrence and St. Mary’s parish schools were consolidated into St. Raymond Parish Grade School. In 1969, all Catholic grade schools in Butte were closed, when ten years earlier there were nine parishes with active grade schools in Butte.
In addition, Boys Central was closed and consolidated with Girls Central. A consolidated, co-ed Butte Central High School, was established in the “Girls Central building and St. Patrick’s,” under the direction of a priest as Principal; and a sister and brother as vice principals. For that generation of students, there was an adjustment going from either an all boys or all girls class rooms, to a mixed, co-ed environment. This also meant that there would be an adjustment for the Irish Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity. Most of them had only taught either boys or girls, and now they were teaching both, each bringing with them their own unique talents and challenges.
For the first time in over 80 years, Catholic education was downsizing in Butte. There were many issues including cost of keeping smaller parish schools open, more Catholic parents sending their kids to public schools, less sisters and brothers available to teach, and the desire to pay the increasing number of lay teachers a decent salary.
During the next couple of decades, Butte’s population decreased as the mines closed, and un-employment was on the rise. Butte’s Catholic student population declined, challenging the essence of Catholic education. The difficult decision was to consolidate and centralize. That is what happened, and continued to happen for many years.
In 1986, after much angst and planning, Butte re-opened Catholic education at the primary grade school level after a long seventeen (17) year absence. This new Butte Central Catholic grade school uses the old St Joseph’s parish school as their facility, and maintains the “Central” concept, enrolling children from all the Butte parishes. Kindergarten and pre-school classes were subsequently added, so Butte now has pre-school through grade twelve (12), Catholic education system available for the current Butte youth.
The work and perseverance to keep the Catholic school system going against tough odds is hard not to appreciate. Other communities would have let it all go years ago, but not Butte.
In 1986, the Irish Christian Brothers left Butte. This heartache was felt by the brothers, as well as, the Catholic community in Butte. These men made such a positive contribution to so many students in their sixty-two (62) years of teaching in Butte. They really were excellent teachers, and a perfect fit for Butte. They were good educators, set the bar high, and expected students to perform.
In discussing the dedication of people, like the brothers, to the Catholic Church Religious life, there is also some amazing data on the priests and nuns that are graduates of Butte Central. There are eighty-five (85) Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth that grew up in Butte and graduated from Butte Central. Fifty-two (52) of them have gone on to their Eternal Home, and thirty-three (33) are still actively working. Butte Central has also contributed fifteen (15) sisters to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who did such a marvelous job educating Butte’s youth in St. Joseph’s, St. Ann’s, St. John’s, and the Immaculate Conception grade school parishes.
Eighty-nine (89) priests from the Diocese of Helena archives were from Butte, and graduated from Butte Central. Today, there are twenty-two (22) active Butte priests in the Helena Diocese out of a current total of seventy-nine (79). There are also a number of Butte priests working in Religious Orders such as the Jesuits, Maryknoll, Franciscans, Benedictine, and in the Foreign Missions.
Butte Central has generated well over two-hundred (200) Catholic religious vocations, and counting. The current Bishop of the Diocese of Helena is George Thomas, who is a 1968 graduate of Butte Central High School.
Today Butte Central High School is much smaller, but it is still an outstanding school. Students that make up most of the current student body are from parents who, themselves, graduated from Butte Central. There are currently one-hundred-forty (140) students enrolled in the high school and approximately four-hundred students (400) system-wide.
Butte Central High School has recently initiated an International Student Cultural Exchange Program, which brings students from Asia and South America to attend Butte Central while living in the school’s newly formed dormitory, or among families in Butte.
Throughout Butte Central’s history it has played a significant part of Butte’s Heritage, along with Butte’s Catholic/Christian Heritage. Butte Central is a very big part of what makes growing up in Butte very special.
Pope Benedict said during his recent visit to the USA that, “Every Catholic school is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”
Loyalty and Wisdom… Butte Central Catholic Schools.