St. Matthew School — built by U.S. military members for their kids — celebrates 50 years

The third-grade class at Cardinal Spellman School, now St. Matthew School, was the first at the parochial school for military children after it opened in September 1963.

Whenever Leo Smith and his wife moved from one U.S. Air Force installation to another, they looked for a nearby Catholic grade school for their children.

Sometimes they found one, and sometimes they didn't. And they moved fairly often.

Smith, now a retired lieutenant general, estimated that the family moved 22 times to different houses over the course of his active military career.

But in 1969, they found something special, a school they'd return to and that their granddaughter would attend decades down the road.

Then Cardinal Spellman School, now known as St. Matthew Catholic School, it is by all accounts the only parochial school in the United States built by members of the military for their children.

No federal funds were involved in building the school near 36th Street and Capehart Road in Bellevue. Donations came from personnel at Offutt and other Strategic Air Command bases around the world, as well as from area residents and businessmen, Catholic and non-Catholic.

The schools' archives even include a letter from actor Jimmy Stewart, an Air Force Reserve officer and friend of Mae Power, wife of SAC's commander-in-chief at the time and a key player in the school's founding.

The school, which opened in September 1963, also is unusual in that it was founded without a parish. St. Matthew Parish was established 1996 to serve a growing population in Sarpy County. The school became St. Matthew Cardinal Spellman School and then a year later changed to St. Matthew.

Saturday, former teachers, students and others will celebrate the school's 50th anniversary, and its unique history, with a banquet at Anthony's Steakhouse in Omaha.

As of last week, about 100 people from the school's far-flung roster were expected to attend, including three of its early teachers, members of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa.

Archbishop George J. Lucas is scheduled to attend, along with Patrick Slattery, a former principal at St. Matthew and the new superintendent of the Omaha Archdiocese's schools. Organizers said it's been difficult to track down alumni, given the transient nature of military life.

Smith said he and his wife had been educated in Catholic schools. They wanted that experience for their children. What made St. Matthew special was the support from his comrades around the world and from local businesspeople who believed both in the need for the school and in SAC's role.

The school had its origins in Congress' expansion of the air command's mission in the 1950s and early 1960s. That expansion brought more families to Offutt, including more Catholic families. But other nearby Catholic schools already were at capacity.

In 1961, according to World-Herald archives, a group of Offutt personnel formed the Catholic Education Association. Among the group were Mae Power, Maj. Gen. James Knapp and Air Force chaplain Capt. John Ruef.

The group eventually raised more than $200,000. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York dedicated the first pod of four classrooms on Aug. 18, 1963. The school was named after him in commemoration of his 25 years as spiritual leader of Catholics in the U.S. armed forces.

The school, which opened with about 140 students in grades three through six, also had a convent for the nuns who staffed it.

Sister Judy Callahan, then known as Sister Eugene Mary, was a first-year teacher when the school opened. She taught third grade.

There were plenty of challenges in starting from scratch, she said, but she enjoyed it. And she loved working with military families.

“They're always willing to try new things and new ways of doing things,” she said. “And they brought experiences from all over the world.”

Norma Kathman first heard about St. Matthew from friends during her first stay at Offutt from 1979 to 1982. She and her husband, Dennis, were communications officers aboard the Looking Glass command aircraft.

When they returned to Offutt in 1988, they sent their sons and later two daughters, the youngest of whom graduated in 2002.

“It seemed like it was very welcoming,” she said. “It was small. Everybody would know everybody.”

The Kathmans, like the Smiths, were involved in the school, particularly after Kathman retired in 1991 as a major. Her husband, a lieutenant colonel, followed in 1993. When the parish was established, she said, “We just flowed right in.”

The Rev. Ron Wasikowski, St. Matthew's pastor, said the school ended the last year with about 135 students. The parish has about 600 families. About a third are active military members, and an additional 15 percent or more are retired military.

“It's a great mix of an international community,” he said.

Kathman said volunteers have gathered photos and stories of the school's early days and prepared a video featuring the beginnings of the school and the parish.

“In the United States,” Kathman said, “it's definitely unique.”

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