Ss. Peter and Paul School, the first (and only) Catholic elementary school serving the Lehighton area, is celebrating its 125th anniversary later this month. To commemorate this milestone, Principal Sherry Sernak is coordinating a program that invites alumni and former staff to share their memories with the current school community.
"There's not a lot of history available on the school anywhere," Sernak said. "Since we can't find any written records, we decided to discover the history through the people whose lives were touched by the school."
Planning its quasquicentennial celebration with the Diocese of Allentown's annual Catholic School's Week, Sts. Peter and Paul will be hosting an open house Jan. 30 featuring an academic fair comprised of student projects. The open house's centerpiece is a series of interviews conducted by students in grades 3-8.
"Each student was tasked with finding someone in the community who has ties to the school, as a former student, faculty member or volunteer," Sernak said. "We're hoping that these interviewees provide artifacts and pictures from their time at the school, in addition to their own memories."
Using old yearbooks, Sernak and her faculty created a list of former proponents of Sts. Peter and Paul, sending personal invitations to the selected individuals. After the celebration of mass in the adjacent church on Jan. 30, members of the church and school community, both past and present, are invited to the open house, which will display the findings gleaned from the student interviews.
"We're all very excited about welcoming our alumni back," Sernak said. "Everyone always has a story to tell, especially in regards to how the building has changed since their time here.
"I can't tell you how many times people tell me how easily their memories of the school come back when they visit the building."
In addition to the initial open house, the week-long celebration will also include a speaker series featuring former students who have since become members of religious orders and communities.
"Throughout the year, our faculty has tried to stress the importance of this anniversary to our students," Sernak said. "We want them to know how important their research is, especially when it comes to discussing the school's history with those who came before us."
According to Sernak, students and faculty alike have embraced this educational effort wholeheartedly.
"Sherry has been much more proactive than our previous principals, and I think the school is in good hands with her," said Candace Steffie, who, at 23 years, is the longest-tenured faculty member at Sts. Peter and Paul. "I love being here; the school has a great family-oriented atmosphere and I hope that it remains open and stable for as long as possible."
The school was started by Father Hubert H. Hammeke, the first resident pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, in 1886, according to official parish records. Hammeke enlisted the Sisters of Charity from St. Joseph's Catholic Church in then-East Mauch Chunk to instruct the growing number of Catholic children in Lehighton. Sts. Peter and Paul's inaugural class was comprised of 60 students, and enrollment steadily increased in the following decades.
When the Diocese of Allentown, faced with declining church attendance and a shortage of priests, was forced to consolidate parishes and schools during the early years of the millennium, Sts. Peter and Paul was on the verge of closing its doors. In 2003, Rev. James Bechtel became the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, and instituted several programs that helped keep the school open, notably a school board and an increased concentration on fine arts education.
Currently, the school boasts a population of approximately 100 students.