This year’s start of school was momentous for the students and teachers at St. Augustine Indian School in Winnebago, Nebraska, as it marked their first year in their new building. Construction on the new school facility started in 2019, and despite the challenges of a global pandemic and supply chain delays, is complete. Deacon Don N. Blackbird, the principal and an alumnus of St. Augustine, said the new school “gives our kids the best learning environment – the learning environment they deserve."
St. Katharine Drexel, Catholicism, and the Medicine Wheel
Father Mark Beran, who has been the pastor at St. Augustine Indian Mission since 2016, believes that the intercession of St. Katharine Drexel made this project possible. Drexel, who is known for building schools for Native American and African American communities, worked with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to build the St. Augustine Indian Mission in 1909. As Father Mark said, “She built 60 Native American schools before she passed away…and it became clear in my mind that she could build another one. We weren’t alone.”
Faith is both a critical component in the story of this new school and a key feature of the building itself. In the traditional Native American medicine wheel, each cardinal direction is associated with a color. In a nod to this tradition, the paint above the windows on each side of the building matches the corresponding color on the medicine wheel. Similarly, a large cross was integrated into the design on the north side of the building. These design choices represent the fusion of Catholicism and Indigenous spirituality present at St. Augustine.
The new facility, which cost more than $10 million, was built by the construction arm of Ho-Chunk, Inc. which is the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe. The new building comes just in time, as the old building was beginning to develop structural deficiencies.
The old school building included several buildings, including portable structures that housed elective classes and the seventh and eighth grades, while the basement of the church served as the cafeteria. Students had to walk between the buildings multiple times each day, which took away from class time and could be difficult in the winter.
The new building was intentionally designed to facilitate learning and to support the student experience. One school leader estimated that teachers will have 45 additional minutes of classroom instruction time each day due to the ease of having all facilities under a single roof.
Students, understandably, are most excited about two features: the gymnasium and new lockers.
Along with the students, members of the St. Augustine Indian Mission parish community are excited about the new school building—especially Viola LaPointe, a 92-year-old parishioner.
The LaPointe family has been attending St. Augustine Indian Mission for six generations. Lapointe, whose goal was to live to see the students attend the new school, checked on the progress of the construction each Sunday after Mass.
This new school promises to serve generations to come at St. Augustine Indian School. “The new building tells the community that it is a community worth investing in, and that we believe in the future of these kids and these tribes,” Beran said. “I hope when the kids enter the doors, they look at every brick and say, ‘That’s a person who believes in me.”
For interested donors, St. Augustine Indian School is raising funds to construct a new parking lot, install landscaping, and upgrade technology. You can donate at this link or call 402-878-2402 to give.