On Wednesday afternoon in front of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School at Fort McClellan, two elementary students were lowering the American flag, working hard to fold it without letting it touch the ground.

A yellow school bus sat idling, waiting for students to come streaming through the doors.

Serenely overlooking it all was a statue of the Virgin Mary, a reminder of the school’s 65-year history in Anniston.

School officials aren’t sure, but they think the statue has watched over students since the 1950s, when the school had a different name — St. Mary’s — and a different location, on McCall Drive in Anniston.

“It looks like the statue we had at McCall,” said Monica Baker, who attended Sacred Heart in the 1980s and is now a second-grade teacher at the school. “After lunch, we would go outside and say the full rosary around it, before playtime.”

Baker attended Sacred Heart at McCall for 3rd through 8th grades, before moving to Anniston High School to graduate in 1991.

Baker has been teaching at Sacred Heart for 10 years. “I teach now because of the influence of my Sacred Heart teachers,” she said. “They made me feel like family. I appreciate that they knew me as more than just a student.”

Sacred Heart celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. The school first opened its doors on Sept. 1, 1953, in the old Wilmer Avenue school building in downtown Anniston. Eighty students attended that first year. The school offered grades 1-4, and the children were taught by four Benedictine nuns — Sister Hildegarde, Sister Rita, Sister Loretta and “little” Sister Carmelita.

The school added an additional grade each year until they were teaching grades 1-8 and realized they had outgrown the building.

In 1956, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church held a campaign to build a new school on McCall Drive. It was called St. Mary’s, and it opened in 1957 with 180 students — 90 percent of whom were Catholic.

During the 1970s, the school’s character changed, and it began admitting many more non-Catholic students. In 1973, the nuns who had been running the school returned to their convent in Cullman, and administration of the school was turned over to the local church. The school hired a lay principal and almost all lay teachers, and its name was changed back to Sacred Heart.

In 2000, the church purchased an old school building on the recently closed Fort McClellan, and expanded to teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The first class of seniors graduated in 2003. Enrollment expanded to nearly 300 students, and high school athletic programs were introduced, including what has become a powerhouse basketball program.

This brief history lesson has been brought to you by Jeremiah Russell, who became principal of Sacred Heart in 2017. Before taking the job, Russell wanted to read a history of the school but couldn’t readily find one. So he searched through the online archives of The Anniston Star and wrote his own.

“I thought it was important to know the history, the background, the culture of the school, to be able to use that identity to grow,” Russell said.

“One thing I found interesting is the Catholic school here has always reached out to the community,” he said. For years, Sacred Heart has taught a mix of Catholic and non-Catholic students, unlike, say, Birmingham Catholic schools, where up to 90 percent to 100 percent of students and teachers can be Catholic, Russell said. “Of course, Catholics are 3 percent to 5 percent of the population here,” he added.

Sacred Heart was not the only Catholic school in town. All Saints Catholic Church on the west side of Anniston ran a school from the early 1950s until 1988.

“We have families now who say their parents or grandparents went to All Saints,” Russell said.

Before becoming principal, Russell worked as a political science professor at Jacksonville State University. He has two daughters who started at Sacred Heart in pre-kindergarten. They are in elementary school now. “I’ve always loved the school and been passionate about the school,” Russell said. “There’s a family atmosphere here. You feel a part of that when you walk on campus.”

In Russell’s first year on the job, he put an emphasis on academic improvements, particularly in the middle school and high school. The school was totally rewired to improve wireless internet access. A new computer lab allows students to take online classes and dual-enrollment classes with JSU. And this year the school is offering robotics.

But there is also a new emphasis on the school’s history. In conjunction with the school’s 65th anniversary, Sacred Heart is starting an alumni association. Alums of Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s are invited back for homecoming weekend Nov. 16-17, for activities including an alumni recognition night, a cookout and a campus tour.

“We have a lot of successful alums, and we’d like to start recognizing them,” Russell said. “I’ve been impressed with the geographic scope (there are alums as far afield as California) and the academic achievements (several have Ph.D.s) — especially for a high school that hasn’t been around that long.”

Today, Sacred Heart students and teachers are about 50 percent Catholic, 50 percent non-Catholic. “We have economic, racial and religious diversity. I think that’s one of our strengths,” Russell said. “We are a very diverse school — and that’s how the real world is. That allows our kids to learn how to live in the world.”

Russell noted that Sacred Heart stands apart from the religious and private schools that were founded in Alabama in the 1960s and ’70s in response to desegregation. “Our school was never founded because of segregation,” Russell said. “Segregation isn’t part of the Catholic tradition.”

The emphasis on diversity is not necessarily intentional, Russell said. “It just sort of is. It’s how the church is. ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal.’

“Being a diverse school in Anniston, Alabama, is just part of being Catholic.”

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.

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