St. Mary's celebrates 125 years of Catholic education in Bird Island

St. Mary's Catholic School in Bird Island marked 125 years over the weekend with three days of fun and remembering. Alumni, current students and members of the community all came together to commemorate the school's anniversary.

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St. Mary's Catholic School in Bird Island has been an important piece of the city's identity for 125 years. Over the weekend, the school celebrated that relationship along with the school's anniversary.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

BIRD ISLAND โ€” It might be summer vacation, but the grounds and halls of St. Mary's Catholic School in Bird Island were alive over the weekend, as past and present students, staff and community members came together to celebrate the school's 125th anniversary.

"This weekend is our way of saying 'thank you' to all of you and to the community," said Tracy Bertrand Sigurdson, St. Mary's principal on Saturday. "This is for you, this is because of you. Thank you for believing in us, thank you for letting us do what we do."

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St. Mary's Catholic School welcomed alumni, staff and community members to tour its halls as the school celebrated its 125th anniversary on June 18, 2022. The present-day school was built in 1915.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The weekend of fun, which occurred alongside the city's annual Island Days festivities, included the Bird Island Bullfrogs baseball game Friday night and a wide variety of activities at the school and fairgrounds on Saturday โ€” including tours of the school, bouncy castles, food trucks and a concert by Strange Daze at the Renville County Fairgrounds. The celebration concluded with a celebratory mass at the church and pancakes after on Sunday.

"It is so nice of you all to be with us today, as we celebrate this wonderful history of Catholic education in the heart of Bird Island, Minnesota," said Father Joseph Steinbeisser on Saturday.

Throughout the day on Saturday current and former students, families and staff of St. Mary's School toured through the school building, remembering their own times within the walls of the institution that first opened its doors in 1897.


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Edna Athmann Rudeen, class of 1945, looks at various pieces and pictures from St. Mary's School on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

"It is absolutely wonderful," said Class of 1949 member Donna Bernhagen Rime, as she looked over old school memorabilia in the gymnasium, a location she remembers well from her own school days. "We had a lot of fun. We use to dance on stage every day."

Edna Athmann Rudeen, a member of the Class of 1945, also has very fond memories of her days at St. Mary's. She said it was very important for her to be at the school on Saturday, as so many of her classmates have passed on. She doesn't want those great days at St. Mary's to be lost or forgotten completely.

Donna Rime and Donna Adams look at their class photo at St. Mary's June 18 2022.JPG
Donna Bernhagen Rime and Donna Ernesti Adams, both from the St. Mary's High School class of 1949, view their old class photo during the school's 125th anniversary celebration June 18, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

"I think its the greatest school I could imagine going to," Rudeen said.

Donna Ernest Adams, another Class of 1949 alumni, was excited to be back at St. Mary's, both to see the school and meet up with old friends and share those school day memories.

"It is just wonderful being back here, to see it once more," Adams said.

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St. Mary's Catholic School principal Tracy Bertrand Sigurdson welcomes all to the celebrations on Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

It was this opportunity for alumni to come together and reminisce that Bertrand Sigurdson was most looking forward to. To help with that, school staff worked hard to gather together as many old photos, trophies, yearbooks and newspaper clippings as they could find.

"We hope as you tour the school and you see the different things and you enjoy the camaraderie today, you reflect back and your heart is full of happiness as mine is too," Bertrand Sigurdson said.

School history

St. Mary's Catholic School was founded in 1897, when the Sisters of St. Joseph came to Bird Island to run the brand-new school, which was to be part of St. Mary's Church. St. Mary's offered K-12 education until 1972, when the last class of seniors graduated. Since 1973 the school has provided K-8 grade education. Each year, a graduation ceremony is held for the eighth-graders.


According to trivia from Father George Schmidt, the smallest high school graduating class was that of 1919, when there were only two. The largest number of graduating seniors was 36 in 1949, 1968 and 1969.

Other school history highlights shared by Schmidt included the champion girl's basketball team of 1922 and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's visit to the school as a thank-you to McKaia Ryberg in 2012.

Fathers Joseph Steinbeisser and George Schmidt at St. Mary's June 18 2022.JPG
St. Mary's priests Fathers Joseph Steinbeisser and George Schmidt at the school's 125th anniversary celebration June 18, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

St. Mary's has lived in four different buildings over its 125 years of operation.

In 1897, it held its first classes in the parish house, as the new school building, opened in 1898, was being built. The school quickly outgrew that first building and a larger school would follow in 1913. A small piece of the 1913 school still exists, as the statue, cornerstone and pillars from the school are now part of the school's digital sign at the front of the building.

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Students and staff from St. Mary's โ€” past and present โ€” were asked to sign the board inside the school on Saturday.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The present-day school, located right beside the church, was built in 1915 and was originally St. Mary's High School.

Over the past few years, maintenance projects have been done to keep the 107-year-old building in good condition. There are new floors on the main floor and the original hardwood floors on the second floor were refinished. The roof was replaced in 2018, and upcoming projects include tuckpointing the brick exterior, new windows and an upgrade playground. And, of course, the technology has continued to change with smart boards having replaced chalkboards and students now with tablets instead of paper and pencils.

Arlys Kaiser, Dottie van der Hagen and Bob van der Hagen look at St. Marys artifacts June 18 2022.JPG
The gym inside St. Mary's Catholic School of Bird Island was full of memories from across the generations. Arlys Kaiser, Dottie van der Hagen and Bob van der Hagen flip through an old scrapbook. Bob was a graduate of St. Mary's in 1961, while Arlys graduated in 1967.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

"We are so, so fortunate to have people believe in us like they do. It is mind blowing to me how amazing people are to us. Your hearts are huge," Bertrand Sigurdson said.

If it wasn't for the community of Bird Island and members of the church, the school never would have taken place or existed for so long and so successfully, Bertrand Sigurdson said.


"This all started because you or your family members were here, or your parents were here or your grand parents were here. You made this happen," Bertrand Sigurdson said. "The next 125 years, the sky is the limit and who know what it will bring."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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