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A Classical comeback: Lourdes adds south campus

When Rosemary Anderson arrived to Our Lady of Lourdes School in 2011, it had just 90 students and was on the brink of closing. Now at near capacity with 231 students and a long wait list, the K-8 school in Denver just announced it is opening a second location this fall.

What caused the shift? A switch to classical education and strong leadership.

“I was hired to bring in a change to revitalize the school,” the 33-year-old principal said, who since her December marriage now goes by Vander Weele. “The following year we began the three-year implementation process. The results of this project have been incredibly humbling.”

Lourdes’ south campus will open in the old St. Louis School in Englewood. St. Louis, which was in operation 87 years, closed in May 2016.

“It will be good to hear the voices of students echoing in the halls again,” said Father Bill Jungmann, St. Louis Church pastor. “On the Sunday it was announced, people were so excited they applauded.”

Mrs. Bigelow, an aide for 2nd – 5th grade at Our Lady of Lourdes, helps a student with a problem. The staff at Lourdes, under the leadership of Rosemary Vander Weele and Father Brian Larkin, is largely credited with having helped turn the school around over the past seven years. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

Those familiar with Lourdes, credit Vander Weele’s leadership with the school’s dramatic success.

“She’s cast a vision and has formed a team that also shares that vision and passion that is able then to see it happen, to realize it,” said former homeschooling mother Karin Middleton, who with her husband Tom has a 12-year-old at the school. Their 15-year-old highschooler graduated from Lourdes. “[Rosemary] would be very quick to say that she wouldn’t be able to do this without [pastor] Father Brian Larkin, [vice principal] Ryan O’Connor and the rest of the Lourdes team.”

Ben Akers, a dean and theology professor at the Augustine Institute who with his wife Heather have a first-grader at Lourdes—the eldest of their four children—agreed.

“Rosemary’s influence on the school is tremendous,” he said. “She turned around a school that was looking to close its doors and now they have to open their doors at another location. That’s a testament to her vision and bringing that vision into practice and communicating it to the teachers and parents and, really, just being a great leader.”

A belief in Vander Weele’s passion and ability to lead spurred former Denver auxiliary Bishop James Conley to broach hiring her in a last ditch effort to keep Lourdes from closing. The bishop, who now heads the Lincoln Diocese, shared the story at an educators conference last year.

“I know a teacher, she’s never had any experience as a principal, but she has a great heart and lots of energy and she has a great understanding of Catholic education,” he recalled telling those set to shutter Lourdes. “Why don’t you appoint her principal of the school? If she crashes, in a year it’s closed.”

…Parents are realizing more and more that our culture is moving against Christianity and it’s become of the utmost importance to provide our children with the best education they can have—one that understands reality with a Catholic Christian mind.” – Father Brian Larkin

Archbishop Charles Chaput, then prelate of Denver, agreed to take on the risk of a rookie principal being the first to implement the classical model—which uses a three-part process of grammar, logic and rhetoric to teach students how to learn and how to think—in a school of the archdiocese.

“The first year was up and down a little bit, then slowly things started to take off,” Bishop Conley said. “[Rosemary] did a lot of PR work herself, and word got around. Understanding of classical-style education gained interest … and here we are today.”

When Vander Weele took the reins at Lourdes, she was just 27, and was the youngest principal in the archdiocese.

A Denver native with several degrees and 14 years experience in local Catholic schools, Vander Weele asserts that Lourdes’ resurrection from near death is due to her team’s fidelity to the Lord and staying true to their mission at the school.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she said about switching to the new curriculum. “As a community, we’ve grown and learned about the richness of classical education.

“Father Brian is extremely supportive, as was Msgr. [Peter] Quang, who hired me. To walk arm and arm with them and lead together has been a tremendous blessing. Ryan O’Connor, the teachers and staff are just incredible. The success of this mission is due to them.”

The culture of Lourdes is one that embraces the Catholic faith and combines with a classical curriculum of education. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

Lourdes’ south campus will start by offering kindergarten through second grade for the 2018-2019 school year, with plans to add additional grades as need demands.

“It’s a continuation of the mission and brand here,” Vander Weele emphasized, explaining that administrators realized they needed to expand as current families alone filled grades K-2 at the Denver site for this fall, leaving no room for the 40 families on a waiting list.

“The demand,” she happily noted, “has been overwhelming.”

“We’re super excited to be able to serve more families,” said Father Larkin. “I think parents are realizing more and more that our culture is moving against Christianity and it’s become of the utmost importance to provide our children with the best education they can have—one that understands reality with a Catholic Christian mind.”

Parent Middleton concurred.

“This is a brilliant solution to make possible the Lourdes experience for more students that is actually retaining the Lourdes experience, as opposed to overcrowding classes and becoming something different,” she said.

To learn more about Our Lady of Lourdes, visit lourdesclassical.org.

Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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