Area's Catholic school tradition runs deep
Residents of the once-thriving Panther Valley area enjoyed luxuries in many forms the least of which was money but a pride in Catholic education was and still is prominent among their possessions.
In the ever-changing face of the Diocese of Allentown, supporters of "parochial school" continue to work diligently and with dedication to offer a faith-filled education that supplements the public school education in the region.
The Catholic school tradition is steeped in local history. Immigrants from Europe came here in droves during the late 1800s and early 1900s. They built churches and schools, starting a legacy that while challenging, is still valued by their ancestors. Four towns boasted having public grade schools.
The immigrants invited nuns to staff the schools, which made the Catholic schools affordable. But a decline in religious vocations, both to the church and convent, also meant a drop off in teachers for the local schools.
"Ten schools, ten traditions, ten legacies, one mission" is the motto of the Our Lady of the Angels Academy team currently working on keeping Catholic education alive in Coaldale, Lansford, Nesquehoning and Summit Hill. The motto speaks to the many educational options once available to parents of the thriving Catholic churches in the Valley. It was those religious vocations that made it all happen.
The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) staffed the former St. Mary's School, Coaldale, and St. Ann's School, Lansford, while the Sisters of Mercy operated the former St. Joseph's School, Summit Hill, and the former Sacred Heart School, Nesquehoning.
Meanwhile, the former St. Stanislaus School, Summit Hill, and the ex-SS. Peter and Paul School, Lansford, relied heavily upon the Bernardine Order of St. Francis for teachers and administrators
At the former St. Michael School, Lansford, and the former SS. Cyril and Methodius School, Coaldale, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were responsible for educating their children.
"A number of things happened," said Betty Pampanin of Summit Hill, a member of the volunteer group that is working on marketing and developing a strategy for the continued operation of OLOA. "There were less nuns, vocations (in the convent) declined, we lost people, and eventually, costs were driven up," she said.
Economic issues led to declining issues. Schools needed to hire teachers at salaries that, while certainly lower than what public schools could afford, were much more money than what the religious required.
Those issues eventually caused closings and mergers and in 1982, Our Lady of the Valley opened. It included the parishes of St. Joseph and St. Stanislaus in Summit Hill, the Coaldale parishes of SS. Cyril and Methodius, St. Mary's and St. John's, and Sacred Heart in Nesquehoning.
St. Michael School remained open in Lansford at the time and included students from SS. Peter and Paul's.
In 1999, all of the schools combined to form Our Lady of the Angels Academy. Eventually, all of the students became housed in the former St. Michael School building in Lansford, the current home to 111 students in grades K-8.
Volunteers point out that if there was no Catholic school in the Valley, the education alternative to public school would cost the Panther Valley School District close to $1 million.
They insist, however, closure is not an option.
"We intend to be here for a long time, said Larry Furey, a Lansford native and graduate of St. Ann's and Marian High School who works professionally in helping to promote the mission of Catholic schools throughout the country. "The goal of everyone here is to preserve a Catholic education and the legacy of it. The passion of our parents and friends is extraordinary. Involvement leads to investment and we believe that investment will pay dividends in the Valley for a long, long a