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St. Anthony Catholic School marks 100 years in the heart of Washington’s Brookland neighborhood

First graders Anna Bonney and Christopher Kuhn-Green work on a classroom exercise at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C., which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this school year. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

When in ‘Little Rome’...

Cries of joy and laughter can be heard from principal Michael Thomasian’s office at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C., if he keeps the window cracked open. His walls are covered with religious iconography, certificates of his achievements in education, and family photos including of his wife and five children. 

The Brookland neighborhood where the school is located near The Catholic University of America has been dubbed “Little Rome” because it is home to so many Catholic institutions, including St. Anthony Catholic School, which was established in 1922 and is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. 

Michael Thomasian stands outside St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C., where he is in his 12th year as principal. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Working in Catholic education could sound like a natural progression once you hear his resume. After growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, he attended St. Margaret School ran by the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, then Boston College High School, and then Assumption College in Worcester until he joined the AmeriCorps volunteer teaching program through the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. He holds two master’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Trinity College.

His achievements include his work as an Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) leader, and in 2017 he received the Principal of the Year Award from The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

Thomasian’s service at St. Anthony was supposed to be a two-year stint as a volunteer teacher when he was 21 years old. Now he is in his 12th year as principal of St. Anthony Catholic School and his 23rd year working there.

The principal noted that the school’s graduates maintain a 100% acceptance rate into Catholic high schools, and St. Anthony’s currently has 225 students enrolled.

During the Catholic Standard’s visit to the schoolThomasian covered for teachers who were pulled out for interviews. Unsuspecting students were excited to see their principal.

Michael Thomasian, the principal of St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, visits a fourth grade classroom there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

As one of four D.C. Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, St. Anthony Catholic School receives what Thomasian describes as “generous financial assistance” from the Archdiocese of Washington.

The principal said that support “allows us to keep our tuition affordable and accessible so we can meet parents where they are, we can meet families where they are.” 

The school, he said, is “ah-maze-ing” because Thomasian considers the layout of the school “funky” and maze-like.

“The way the building is, the little kids can still be separate and sing and spill the glitter and all that, and the big kids can be big kids, but there’s time to come together,” Thomasian said.

Third graders attend a class at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The shared middle school experience at St. Anthony is bookended every week with prayer as every Monday Thomasian leads a prayer service, and every Friday students at the school attend Mass together. 

The school will host a 100th Anniversary Gala on March 23, 2023 at St. Francis Hall at the nearby Franciscan Monastery. Funds raised will go toward renovating the gymnasium, as the gym is in disrepair due to water damage. The school needs roughly $125,000 to complete the first phase of reconstruction which would primarily include replacing the gym floor.

“We can still be division champs with the gym in poor condition, but we do want it to be a better space, a safer space, a brighter space,” Thomasian said. 

Thomasian said many alumni have cherished memories of the original gym when it was first constructed and the dances and bingo parties hosted there, as well as former Saturday night roller skating events.

“We’re trying to give the kids beauty,” Thomasian said. He leads the gardening and planting efforts outside the school, including at its vegetable garden. “Curb appeal is important, but also just for the kids to see we care about you, we love you, this is not only safe, but it’s a beautiful space and together we take care of it,” he said.

Students and teachers reflect on St. Anthony Catholic School

Eighth graders Chukwuebuka Mbarah and Yzabella Reyes have attended St. Anthony Catholic School since they were young children and said they have enjoyed their experiences there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Eighth graders Yzabella Reyes and Chukwuebuka Mbarah started at St. Anthony Catholic School in kindergarten and pre-K4, respectively. 

“Everything about the school is awesome, the teachers, the athletics, and the students here are just fun and interesting,” Mbarah said. His favorite classes are English and reading, and he hopes to be a lawyer when he’s older.

“I love it [here],” Reyes said. She added she will miss “the environment” of the school, as well as her classmates once she graduates. Reyes is on the student council and is looking forward to “Lock-In” when students in third to eighth grade stay at the school late playing games.

The 225 students attending St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington this year include fourth graders Maia Perdomo and Abel Gebrekidan. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Spanish teachers Ana Garcia, who has worked at the school for 18 years, and Mayra Bunker, who has worked at the school for seven years, split their duties between pre-K3 to second grade and third to eighth grade. The duo make an effort not only to teach Spanish language to the students, but also to expose them to Hispanic culture.

Spanish teacher Ana Gracia works with pre-kindergarten students at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Mayra Bunker teaches a Spanish class to third graders at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“Almost every day is a fiesta at San Antonio because we do a lot of celebrations, incorporating Catholic celebrations, like the Virgen de Guadalupe [in December], Día de Los Muertos [in November], and we have a big fiesta on Cinco de Mayo,” Bunker said. 

Mayra Bunker and Ana Garcia are Spanish teachers at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Sister Mary Olivia Shirley is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and has worked at St. Anthony Catholic School for five years. She teaches fourth grade. For 75 years after the school was founded in 1922, Benedictine Sisters staffed St. Anthony’s School. 

“I love St. Anthony, it is a great school in the heart of Brookland, it is a very diverse school,” Sister Mary Olivia said. She said that over the years she has seen the students grow spiritually, as well as in their kindness and respect.

The Dominican sister expressed her hope that students will graduate from St. Anthony with a sense of doing service for their community, a value that the school holds dear.

Dominican Sister Mary Olivia Shirley, a teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, works with fourth graders Ruth Adeniran and  Chigozirim Mbaleme. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“Part of a large piece of who we are at St. Anthony is that we try and encourage each other as a religious family rooted in Christ that serves the community,” Sister Mary Olivia said about their upcoming canned food drive for Thanksgiving as well as the service project that each class focuses on. “Service is a large part of what we do and it's a large part of our mission statement that we are servant leaders, [I hope] what the children receive here, that they go out into the community and share the light of Christ with others.”

Kathleen Downey, the pre-K4 teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School, has taught there for 30 years, after she first came on fresh out of graduate school. 

“This is an amazing community, two years ago I had gone through some tragedy, and the first place I told my mom I needed to go was to work, and I did, I live on the Eastern Shore and I came here, I needed the children and I needed my friends at that time,” Downey said. “It was just so loving, and they just embraced me and still have and continue to embrace me, this is just an amazing place to work.”

Kathleen Downey, the pre-K4 teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, has taught there for 30 years. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Downey attended Catholic school all the way through college, so Catholic education has always been an important part of her life. She hopes if her students have at least one takeaway from their time at the school, it is that they are loved.

“I want them to know that God loves them, that He loves all of us, we’re not perfect, and Jesus just loves us 24/7,” Downey said.

Community in the wake of vandalism

In August, St. Anthony Catholic School faced violent acts of vandalism and theft twice, just days apart. Someone broke into the school and stole items from a desk, including money. In the vandalism, a statue of the school’s namesake outdoors, St. Anthony, was missing its head, and two benches, a couple of windows, and a statue of the Virgin Mary were also damaged. 

This gave the Brookland community an opportunity to help the school through a difficult time. A GoFundMe was set up and raised more than $35,000. According to the website for the fund, the money raised will be used to “replace the statue, broken benches and repair the damage done to the building. Any additional funds will go towards beautifying the outdoor space and improved safety.”

A local mason worker, Walker Matthews, offered to fix the broken windows and installed the new statue of St. Anthony free of charge through his company, Federal Masonry Restoration. This work had to be completed in time for the school's Centennial Mass on Nov. 20, when Cardinal Wilton Gregory blessed the statue after the Mass.

For now, with the damage repaired and the statue restored, the community at St. Anthony can look forward to its centennial gala in the spring, the future of its gymnasium, and its next century. 

Related story:

St. Anthony Catholic School celebrates centennial Mass and cardinal's blessing of their new statue of patron saint

Ana Garcia, a Spanish teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School, shows a turkey puppet to pre-kindergarten student Taraji Kariithi. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)