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Willow City had Private Catholic School

Solarski, Janie. "Willow City had Private Catholic School." Courant, 26 June 1984.


For students who attended the Notre Dame Academy in Willow City, there was no debate over public versus private education.

"The teachers were really good," Dorothy Cassavant, a former academy student, said. "The students felt that they got a good education."

"It was a good school," Father Roman G. Neva said. Neva, who was appointed pastor of the Willow City, Notre Dame des Victoires parish in 1947, said that the students usually graduated with between 20 and 22 credits rather than the 16 credits that was considered average at that time. "The boarding students had a lot of supervised study so they disciplined themselves well and probably learned more than the average student," he said.

Monsignor Theophile P. Campeau, pastor of Willow City from 1906 to 1936, was responsible for building the academy. Land was donated by the parish and the academy was built by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, at a cost of $19,000.

The four-story academy was opened on Oct. 16, 1906, with an enrollment of 75 students, 51 of whom were borders. In 1909, a new wing was added on, and an infirmary and a furnace room were soon built in 1912.

As enrollment increased, so did the curriculum. A four-year high school course was introduced, along with music and Home Economics departments and a three-year commercial school that included typing and bookkeeping courses.

By 1915, enrollment included 115 boarders and 100 day students. In 1961 enrollment was 190.

When the academy first opened there were five nuns who taught and kept the academy running. With the addition of the high school, that number increased to about 13.

Neva said the nuns raised a limited amount of livestock. They had their own chickens and a couple of cows. They also had a garden and they did all of the cooking.

Students were never refused enrollment because of financial problems. "When they couldn't pay for tuition they would help out with the chores," Neva said.

Neva said the percentage of out-of-town students was a little over half the enrollment. Cassavant said there were students from all over, such as Minot, Williston, Westhope and Drake.

Leah Bergeron's six children were educated at the academy. "They lived there five days a week. On weekends we got them home," she said.

In 1947, tuition and board was $27 per month. In 1968, the last year the school was open, it only costed $34, Neva said. "They just charged enough for the nuns to get by and for expenses for the school," he said.

Although it was very cheap, Bergeron said, "It still was a lot for us to pay it all with cash. To help pay for the children's keep, we used to sell them beef, potatoes, and hay for their cows. Some of the boarders that were too far from home to leave on weekends would get part-time jobs helping in the kitchen to help pay their keep."

Sister Albert Marie, the first grade teacher, was the favorite of everyone, Cassavant said. "Because the children liked her so much they didn't want to pass first grade."

Neva also said she was an excellent teacher. "There was no kid that wasn't able to read, write or spell when they finished her first grade class," he said.

Ourore Duff, Cassavant's mother of Willow City, said that the nuns were very strict during the first years of the school. "You couldn't even talk to each other. The boys and girls had separate dining rooms and play yards. Later on they weren't quite as strict," she said.

Bergeron said that the nuns' bedrooms were on the first floor, but two of them had bedrooms on the dorm floor. Cassavant called them "guard rooms where the nuns slept to separate the sexes."

Neva just said, "There was none of that going on. At least I didn't know about it."

Basketball was Notre Dame Academy's only sport, and when Neva arrived in 1947, he became the coach until the school closed. They had no gym and Neva said the Willow City High School would not allow them to use its gym. So they had no place to practice until 1953 when the Barton School allowed them to practice on its gym floor.

Neva expected good conduct from his players. "I insisted upon that, otherwise there was no reason to be there," he said.

Cassavant said they often won the good sportsmanship trophy. "Notre Dame never won anything, so they were sure to win this trophy," she said.

Neva said that competitiveness is hurting sports today. "Wanting to win and always be No. 1 destroys the whole idea of the game," he said.

Neva said the nuns took in a number of youngsters that had a little brush with the law. "They needed a little guidance and they turned out fine. Basically, they were good kids but they just got in with the wrong group of kids," he said.

Neva said there were no real discipline problems. "Not until the '60s, anyway. Maybe it was a good thing that the school closed. Maybe it was providential because of the developing drug culture. We didn't know what we would have done with the boarding school if it would have become a problem."

He said the academy closed down because Valley City needed extra teachers for their Catholic school. "And since Notre Dame couldn't afford to hire lay teachers they had to close." Also, the academy needed many repairs. After it closed it was sold then torn apart.

Neva, who was born in 1908 in Courtney, ND, had his first parish assignment in Westhope in 1940. In 1947, he came to Willow City and served the parish until 1970 when he became pastor at Saint Cecilia's Catholic Church in Harvey, ND.

Neva says he looks back with fond memories. "We closed in good grace and with not too many problems."

Notre Dame Academy in Willow City.

Reprinted with permission of the Courant.

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