Flo Agbincola Motoyama remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“I was at St. Catherine from the very first day it opened its doors in 1946,” she says with pride. “We have a lot of memories of those early years at St. Catherine. Those were wonderful days with wonderful teachers.”
This October, St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Kapaa will celebrate the 70th year of the school’s existence with a reunion of alumni, members of the congregation, relatives and friends.
Establishing St. Catherine Catholic School was very important to Father Joseph Callaghan, first Marist priest at the Eastside parish. Planning started in 1945, when Bishop Sweeney of the diocese of Honolulu decided that Catholic parishes needed to make building schools a priority.
It was decided that a site away from the ocean would be better for the proposed school. Sea breezes were so strong they had taken a serious toll on the original St. Catherine Church ever since it was built in 1887 at Kealia, across from the first Kapaa School.
Three parcels of land on Kawaihau and Hauaala roads were purchased, and design and construction began. The school was blessed by the bishop on Sept. 3, 1946.
The bishop had contracted the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mother to staff the new school and on Aug. 15, 1946, the first group of five nuns (including a music teacher) arrived on Kauai.
When it opened, the school had two parallel buildings of four classrooms with a courtyard between them. Five grades occupied the classrooms: kindergarten and grades 1-4. Each year another class was added until there were eight. The first eighth-grade class graduated in 1951. (Motoyama’s class of 46 students graduated in 1955. )
“Sister Mary Raymunda was the teacher of my class,” Flo said, adding that the school’s first kindergarten class occupied the room that would later become the eighth-grade classroom.
A story about Father Callaghan and that first day, attributed to Sr. Raymunda, was shared in a St. Catherine publication.
Apparently, Callaghan was so excited about school actually starting that he jumped into his car, drove up the hill to the school and started greeting parents and students. Problem was he was also supposed to have brought the five teachers. He finally realized he had left them behind.
Motoyama says she has so many memories of her days at St. Catherine, they could fill an entire series of articles.
“When the school bell rang, all grades lined up in the school yard across from the original drop-off area. We then processed by grade (higher first, then lower grades) into the grassy area in the middle of the U-shaped building.”
Once there, students would face the American flag which was raised every morning, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing a patriotic song, accompanied by second-grade and music teacher Sister Mary Ann Elizabeth, who would play the piano from her music room adjacent to the flag pole. Once the daily ritual was done, students would go to their respective classrooms.
The Agbincola family’s seven children, including Motoyama’s four sisters and two brothers, all attended St. Catherine.
“You had to do homework first before you could play,” she remembered. “We did well in school because our parents stressed studying. Scholastic achievement was important in our family.”
Because the school was self-supporting with the help of the parish, a lot of fundraisers were held. Every year. St. Catherine put on a “show” for the community.
“Nuns and others taught us hula, social dancing, square dancing, etc.,” she said.
In those days, students rode to sports events and other school activities in pineapple trucks, courtesy of Hawaiian Canneries in Kapaa.
In the summer, that was “the place” to work if you were 16 and older, she said.
A visiting public health nurse/hygienist would come to the school to clean students’ teeth and recommend dental visits. (There were only two dentists in Kapaa at the time.)
Students borrowed library books from the green “Bookmobile,” a mobile library for the mandatory book reports they were required to write once a month. Penmanship writing lessons were held on Fridays — and graded.
“Besides penmanship, we had to write ‘Paragraphs’ to develop writing skills,” she remembers.
Physical education classes were also on Fridays. Girls wore a modest maroon, one-piece gym suit with elasticized legs that tucked under the thighs.
“Throughout my years at St. Catherine (1946-55), there was no cafeteria so we brought lunch every day. However, Sr. Annette made it possible for us to buy cold milk or ice cream, which cost about a nickel or a dime, in those days.”
For “small” recess and lunch recess, students had the entire campus in which to play since the only other building at that time was the nuns’ convent.
Motoyama spoke fondly of Father Hughes, a popular parish priest. “I remember a young Father Hughes singlehandedly mowing the entire campus before the church and hall had been built. How many acres was that?” she wondered.
Students enjoyed attending St. Catherine School, according to Motoyama.
“The nuns were strict but fun. I always thought they were good teachers,” she said. “Every grade had no trouble learning. They knew how to teach and made it interesting.”
Standards were high and parents of students who graduated from St. Catherine felt their children received an excellent education. Many students did extremely well, including one who won the Territorial Spelling Bee.
Discipline was imposed when called for but it helped build character, Motoyama said.
Her schoolmates came from several religions and ethnicities: Layosa, Texeira, Freitas, Ebinger, Jerves, Christian, Soares, Victorino, Vasques, Dikilato, Lizama, Ladera, Fernandes, Gouveia, Arruda, Garcia, Lai were just some of the surnames of students at St. Catherine.
“We never tried to ‘convert’ other students,” Motoyama said. “And they never complained about having to say the Rosary or praying with the other students.”
Classrooms were cleaned by students who did not have to ride a school bus home.
Over the past 70 years, St. Catherine has undergone many changes. The BVM nuns staffed the school for 23 years. In 1969, the Dominican Sisters took over.
In 1950, a kindergarten was built, a new convent in 1952, The new church in 1958, a cafeteria in 195.
In the 1970s, parents and parishioners volunteered their time to upgrade the campus with a library near the school office, playground equipment and a parish hall, according to the St. Catherine website.
The hall serves as the school’s cafeteria and assembly hall. It was later named Coyle Hall in honor of Fr. Patrick Coyle, SM, who served as pastor of St. Catherine Parish. He celebrated his 90th birthday in Coyle Hall.
When Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in 1992, the school sustained severe damage, including destruction of the library. The reconstruction included classroom and office renovations, a new library (extension and remodeling of an existing building), a computer lab and Early Learning Center, housing kindergarten and preschool, according to the school website.
June 2000, the Dominicans needed to consolidate their community and left St. Catherine. Since then, the school has been staffed entirely by lay teachers who continue the tradition of excellence in Catholic education as first envisioned by Fr. Callaghan.
Celina Haigh has been with the St. Catherine School Community since 1995. She has served as principal for the past 10 years and was a teacher before that.
She takes great pride in her school, her students and her job. She is excited that St. Catherine recently started a high school and now has four students.
Flo Motoyama and her sister Dorothy Agbincola Witte are just two of the alumni eagerly awaiting the coming reunion. Flo said she knows of at least one student who has never attended a high school reunion but is making plans to attend this one.
“We are very proud to be able to celebrate this 70th anniversary of St. Catherine and to honor those nuns and priests who were and are part of this legacy,” Motoyama said.
One thing Haigh hopes comes out of this reunion is a viable list of alumni names, mail and email addresses to help them keep in touch with alumni and keep them informed of what is going on at their old school.
On Oct. 12, the first day of the reunion, the church hall has been reserved as a hospitality site for participants to meet, talk story and pick up programs. A banquet dinner is also planned. More details will be available closer to the October reunion date.
St Catherine School’s website is: http://kauaistcatherine.org/school
Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a resident of Kapaa.