St. Anthony Catholic School dates to 1883, four years before the state created Pasco County. Its history, which begins in a widow's home with 14 children, documents generations of academic success, but also a religion's struggle that seems so unlikely today.
The past is never forgotten in this 1.2-square-mile town where historical markers pay tribute to former Arizona Supreme Court Judge Edmund Dunne, who founded the San Antonio Catholic Colony in 1881. The three-story red-brick schoolhouse in the town's square has stood since 1922, one of Pasco County's few icons.
Parents and educators at the school enjoy telling the old stories, but these days it's the future that has them excited. Recently, leaders of the St. Petersburg Diocese gathered for a ceremonial ground-breaking for a $3 million expansion. By August, they expect to open a new matching red building attached to the historic schoolhouse, which also will be renovated.
"The whole town is thrilled,'' said Sister Alice Ottapurackal, who is in her fourth year leading the school for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. "The end result will be worth all the disruption.''
Creative Contractors, the Clearwater company whose projects in Pasco include the business school at Saint Leo University and Wiregrass and Gulf Trace elementary schools, will get started over the Thanksgiving break.
For all the pride in the old red building, it has been in need of improvements for years. It's sturdy with three floors of poured concrete, but it is limited for people with physical disabilities. Its rooms are cooled with noisy window units. The new construction will include central air and elevators, and covered walkways connecting the two buildings. It will replace worn-out portable classrooms.
This project seemed unlikely only a few years ago as the private school suffered along with the rest of the local economy. In 2009, enrollment dipped to 153 students, down from a high of 245. But in the past two years, the school has seen a 40 percent increase.
Will Plazewski, 45, the school's marketer and historian, is quick with milestones and statistics about all the graduates who have gone on to become valedictorians at area high schools. He speaks with authority from a family history of St. Anthony students. He and his wife, Cassandra, the school's physical education teacher, are graduates. Their sons have attended the school.
Plazewski's father, Walter, moved from Chicago in 1951 and taught English at a prep school that is now Saint Leo University. He and his wife, Mary, had six children and all attended St. Anthony School. Will was the youngest. One of his brothers, Father Len Plazewski, is pastor at Christ the King Parish in Tampa and the Diocese historian. Walter, 96, and Mary, 81, still live in San Antonio.
During a tour of the campus last week, Will shared stories of the old school and St. Anthony of Padua, the second-oldest church on Florida's west coast. He explained how monks at St. Leo manufactured the precast hollow concrete blocks used when the present church replaced the old wooden one in 1911.
Plazewski told about the school's construction in 1922, when boys with good grades and behavior earned the privilege of carrying red bricks for the work crews.
Another fascinating story has generally been forgotten and seems hard to believe these days, 53 years after America elected its first Catholic president.
In 1917, Florida had a governor, Sidney Johnston Catts, who headed the Prohibition Party. He publicly labeled blacks as an "inferior race'' and fueled anti-German sentiments at the onset of World War I. He believed the St. Leo monks, many of German ancestry, were linked to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Catts led an effort to prohibit priests and nuns from teaching in public schools and St. Anthony became private, Plazewski explained.
The county built a public elementary school nearby, and it caught fire in 1930. Father Bernard Weigl allowed the displaced students and faculty to use St. Anthony while the county built a new facility.
"I guess you could say they turned the other cheek,'' Plazewski said with a smile.
Catts, by the way, served one term. He failed in 1924 and 1928 to regain the office and died in 1936 at age 72.