The walls of St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood are covered in papers: drawings of penguins by elementary school students, a smiling picture of Mother Teresa, photos of the Archdiocesan seminarians, and a sign at the door to a classroom that reads “Excuses Stop Here.” Taped on principal Michael Thomasian’s door is a picture of his newborn daughter, his office table is adorned with a bouquet of tin foil flowers (“a third grader made me that,” he explains), and behind his bookcase is a tri-fold poster board with pictures of the 23 St. Anthony students who were baptized last Easter.  

“This was just something cheesy that I made in my kitchen,” Thomasian said. “But I wanted something to show the Catholic identity of the school. And we’ve already got a couple more [students wanting Baptism] for this year.” The 93-year-old school just blocks away from The Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has survived many challenges and changes, but remains true to its identity of educating in the name of Christ.

In St. Anthony’s storied history, Benedictine sisters staffed the elementary school, the premises were a training ground for Catholic University’s education students and the school went through twelfth grade. Still fondly remembered by its alumni, 12 members of the Class of 1954 recently toured the grounds before their 60th high school reunion.

Today the elementary school of 235 students is still evolving and changing, with the new addition of pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds, a garage converted into a music room, a new computer lab and rising numbers. “By the grace of God our enrollment is up, our fourth year in a row,” said Thomasian. The school also maintains strong academics, with 100 percent of its students accepted into local Catholic high schools.

Unlike some urban Catholic schools that have had to close their doors, St. Anthony has survived, with help in part from the Consortium of Catholic Academies, which provides funding for four Catholic elementary schools in the city, including St. Anthony. “Cardinal Hickey [the leader of the Archdiocese of Washington from 1980 to 2000] did a review of all the urban schools and received the feedback that they’re not sustainable,” explained Thomasian. “He really was upset, and said try it again, and that’s how this consortium got created.”

“People told him, ‘Your Eminence, these kids aren’t even Catholic.’ And he said, ‘we do it because we’re Catholic, not because they are.’” Thomasian said that phrase resonates with him, as the principal of a Consortium school that does its utmost to promote Catholic values within the community.  “It’s God-lead, that’s the only way to describe it,” said fifth grade teacher Diane Contreras, about St. Anthony School. In addition to attending daily religion class and weekly Mass, students study their class’s patron saint, adopt a class charity and focus on a fruit of the Holy Spirit every month. Teachers are also being challenged in their faith lives. “All of our teachers are becoming catechetically certified, taking online courses together,” said Thomasian. “When we have faculty meetings, we’ll break up into groups and discuss whatever we’re learning online, just to put a little bit of a live face to it. We should all be certified by the end of the year.”

After teaching for six years in inner-city public schools in Los Angeles, Diane Contreras was attracted to St. Anthony Catholic School because of the faith-filled environment, which she believes creates a common ground for all her students to come back to when they disagree with one another. Unlike in public or secular schools, “here I just get to go back to Jesus,” she said.

Contreras says her students are extremely energetic, insightful, creative, and liable to push the button on every little thing, which forces her to grow both spiritually and professionally. “Although it requires a lot of patience on my part, it’s helping me evolve the way I wanted to as a teacher.” she said. “I lean more on my faith here, and it makes me less afraid to just try something random or new.”

Eighth grader Irene Otunla, who hopes to attend St. John College High School in the fall, said, “I like being here because it’s a small school so you basically know everybody’s names, everybody’s faces.” Even the school’s crimson sweaters, oxford shirts and plaid skirts pass muster. “Of all the uniforms I’ve seen, these are the cute ones,” she said.

In recent years, some St. Anthony’s students have attended President Obama’s State of the Union address at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. St. Anthony’s boys may attend the new Bowtie Brunch, where they will hear from teachers and other men about living a virtuous life as a male. Students may grow closer to their parents during school hours through the mandatory parent participation that brings them in as crossing guards, chaperones or lunch coordinators.

St. Francis de Sales emphasized the importance of growing in grace and wisdom, and that spirit of faith and learning continues to characterize St. Anthony Catholic School as it nears the century mark. “I’m a product of Catholic education, and I just believe in Catholic education, that it’s educating the whole child,” said Thomasian.