A Lesson in St. Francis School History
Opened in 1936, the St. Francis School was the first-ever parochial school established in Central Oregon. It was the realization of a long-held dream of parish priest Father Luke Sheehan.
Father Luke, who hailed from County Cork, Ireland, had come to Bend in 1910 as part of a mission to the "wilds" of Oregon made by the Irish Capuchin order of Catholic priests. Father Luke established and cultivated the St. Francis parish, initially by trekking hundreds of miles on horseback or on foot, to meet with those first, widely dispersed parishioners. Among this pious group were many of the priest's countrymen, Irish immigrants who had converged upon the high desert mostly to work as sheepherders.
Father Luke's nephew, Dominic O'Connor, was also a Capuchin priest, who like his uncle, came to Bend. Father Dominic, though, made quite a name for himself before coming to Oregon. In fact, in the annals of Irish history, Father Dominic O'Connor is heralded as a national hero. His deeds done in support of the Irish Republic are celebrated in text, verse and song. After coming to Bend in 1922, Father Dominic lived a much quieter life devoted to serving the St. Francis Parish, and more generally, the Baker Diocese. This service firmly established the Irish hero as an important figure within the history of Central Oregon.
All of the groundwork done by Fathers Luke and Dominic and their Capuchin brethren, laid a solid foundation allowing for the school's construction, which ironically came during the economically dire days of the Great Depression. The original brick school building contained four classrooms, with grades one through eight paired two to a room. That first year, there were 145 students enrolled. In years to come, that number soared to more than 300. To accommodate enrollment increases, additions were made to the school in the 1950s and '60s. The first add-on of two classrooms was done in 1953. Seven years later, four more rooms were constructed. Then, in 1968, a spacious new parish center was built along the school's north side to house a gym, stage, meeting rooms and cafeteria.
By all accounts, the nuns who taught at St. Francis, all of whom were of the Sisters of the Holy Names order from Marylhurst University campus south of Portland, were effective teachers; many were taskmasters, and most had a big heart (though some chose not to wear it on their sleeve).
Beginning in the late 1960s, change was afoot. Student uniforms were no longer required and lay teachers began to fill the roster at St. Francis School, and the remaining nuns no longer wore habits. But while the formal look of the faculty and student body was relaxed, the focus on quality education remained constant.
In 2000, the St. Francis School relocated to a newly constructed modern campus on the northeastern section of the city. The old downtown property, which now included four old bungalow houses on the back end of the lot, passed to McMenamins, who renovated and reopened the landmark as the Old St. Francis School in November 2004.