Although St. Joachim School is celebrating its 75th anniversary as a source of quality education, this anniversary celebrates much more - love, service, charity, faith and the instilling of Christian values and morals, which have become the legacy of this school that opened in 1927.
The significance of St. Joachim in the lives of the children and families is fostered not only through the spiritual component that permeates the school, but also in providing a living example of Christ through the sisters, lay faculty and priests who oversee every aspect of the school.
The children are more than members of a school or a specific class but are embraced as part of the faith community and a family which allows a special bond not only with the other students but with the mystical body of Christ which is the Catholic Church.
Although providing an exceptional education is one of the primary goals of St. Joachim, what distinguishes this school is the spiritual virtues which are infused into every facet of the curriculum as well as the daily life of the school.
"Although we provide an exceptional education, the primary purpose for the school is the spiritual formation of the students," said associate pastor Carlos Esquivel, O.S.J. "Although I couldn't see the impact on my life at the time I attended, St. Joachim's provided me with the environment to establish a tone and foundation which is responsible for my becoming a priest."
The influence of St. Joachim School on the family is one of the most amazing tributes to the impact and value of the school to those who have attended. Spanning generations, families have sent their children to St. Joachim with the result being that future generations continue this influence.
To these people, St. Joachim School isn't a building or a location - it is a spirit-filled, Christ-centered sanctuary where the emphasis is on developing the entire child, academically, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
At St. Joachim's there is no separation or distinction between educating and fostering the development of the mind while also nurturing the soul.
Equally compelling is the family involvement and inclusive atmosphere that St. Joachim School provides in fulfilling its mission.
All parents volunteer to work and help at the school, as the school considers the parents as the primary educators.
"Parents are vital in supplementing the education of their children," said Sister Encarnacion. "Although the Gospels and Christian values permeate the curriculum, the parents must live out these aspects in their own lives as well."
As a parent of a student attending St. Joachim's, one must be willing to volunteer at the school in some capacity for at least 20 hours a year. However, for a lot of parents who know the importance of family involvement in enriching the school, St. Joachim's spirit of community motivates them to give far beyond the hours required.
"My parents put six of us through St. Joachim's and the impact this had on my life as I got older really hit home," said Jim Cavallero. "My wife (Karen) and I wanted to provide the same opportunity for our three children and the parental involvement is fundamental in providing the close family environment of the school which is hard to find elsewhere."
Although three orders of sisters have operated the school over the past 75 years, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception have assumed the responsibility since 1977.
This order originated in Madrid, Spain, in 1892 with the specific mission to serve the church as teachers in Catholic schools around the world. There are more than 600 sisters serving in this capacity in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe.
The current principal, who will be handing over her duties in August is Sister Encarnacion who came to the United States in 1962 from Madrid.
In her presence, one can see the love and enthusiasm for her chosen vocation as she radiates with beauty that can only come from a spiritual endowment.
Sister Encarnacion joined the order in 1956 and took her perpetual vows in 1961. Having grown up in the province of Borgus in a small town, Sister Encarnacion attended a Catholic elementary school and then moved to Borgus to live with her aunt and uncle in order to attend The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception High School and earn her degree from Immaculata University.
Having come from an extremely devout Catholic family, Sister Encarnacion had three aunts who were sisters, an uncle who was a priest and a sister who also joined the religious life, so she had a wealth of positive examples from family members who chose a life of service to God.
"I knew that I wanted to become a sister the day I made my First Holy Communion," said Sister Encarnacion. "But when I turned 18 my aunt tried to convince me to wait, but I knew I was ready and that this was the way of life that I had been called to."
Sister Encarnacion holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in education from Fresno State as well as a master's degree in theology from the University of San Francisco, a prominent Catholic University.
Moreover, all of the sisters - Sister Encarnacion, Sister Esperanza, Sister Paulina and Sister Irene all hold college degrees and California teaching credentials, as it is highly encouraged in their order to be able to offer the highest quality of education to their students.
One may wonder about what compelled these women to make the decision to become sisters, the type of lives that they lead and where their fulfillment comes from as they do not have the material possessions or luxuries that most people are accustomed to.
"We are living examples of Christ," said Sister Encarnacion. "His love, caring and sacrifice for others is what He calls each of us to do. Our joy comes from doing God's will and witnessing the transformation of children's lives as they embrace the faith and grow in love for God and each other while receiving an education that will allow them to succeed in their future endeavors."
These exceptional sisters listened to and followed Christ's call in aspiring to their vocations, and the look in their eyes and the warmth of their hearts is all one needs to see to understand that their fulfillment is one of a spiritual nature and taking care of God's children is their greatest satisfaction.
"My greatest joy is when I see children learn, succeed and grow, not only in terms of academics but also in terms of a developing a closer relationship with Jesus and a devotion to the Catholic Church."
Although American society and the educational system have become increasingly adamant in terms of upholding the separation of church and state, in a parochial school these two aspects are inexorably linked.
In the past 41 years since Sister Encarnacion has been in the United States and teaching in Catholic schools, there has been a dramatic change in the social dynamics of this country, witnessed by the breakdown of the family unit, murder and violence, a much more liberal perspective on values and morals and a diminished appreciation for spiritual attributes.
"It's increasingly more difficult to impart Christian values and a Catholic education," said the Rev. Larry Toschi, O.S.J., pastor at St. Joachim's Catholic Church. "Society puts so much pressure on children in an attempt to push religion aside, which makes our mission even more vital."
Incoming Principal Tom Spencer chose to accept the position at St. Joachim's because of what he witnessed as the principal of Sierra High School, as well as fulfilling what he felt was his spiritual imperative.
"I chose St. Joachim's because of my own faith and the values and special atmosphere that exists here," said Spencer. "I have seen the constant erosion of morals and values in our children and wanted to contribute in an environment where these Christian attributes are actively encouraged."
In an informal survey conducted by the school, it was found that over a third of the students themselves felt that religious instruction and being able to go to Mass together was what they valued most about the school.
"It really gives me a lot of satisfaction to watch the children growing up with a strong spiritual foundation and making god a priority in their lives," said Fr. Esquivel. "And when the students return later in life it is amazing how their faith and the rewards of a Catholic education have impacted their lives."
Amidst the climate of moral relativism and a decline in values witnessed in society, we are seeing a spiritual revolution in which people are returning to their faith after finding that all the trappings of the secular world cannot satisfy them.
"Materially, children have much more today than ever before," said Sister Encarnacion. "But the basic needs are still the same-a hunger for God and a feeling of love and acceptance."
With a decline in those who choose the vocation of becoming sisters, there are only four at St. Joachim's but the lay faculty are just as committed to the same values and morals of a Christian education shared by the sisters.
In fact, for the lay faculty this is every bit as much a vocation and a work of love as others in the religious life. These teachers realize that they are making great sacrifices in terms of their income by not teaching in a public school but recognize the need and value for their services.
One example is Patty Westley who had worked as special education teacher for Madera County before taking years off in order to raise her four children. After her children were grown and away at college, Westley considered going back to teaching but decided to volunteer as a classroom aide at St. Joachim's.
"I wasn't really looking for a job but my husband and I did a lot of prayer and soul searching," said Westley. "And being a member of the parish I felt that God would lead me where he wanted me. A position opened up and I applied and have been teaching now for 10 years and look forward to going to work every day, as St. Joachim's is like my second family."
Although the value of a Catholic education to the children and families who decide to send them to St. Joachim's is extremely important, most families have to make many sacrifices in order to provide this for their children.
"Many parents make great sacrifices to send their children to St. Joachim's," said Sister Encarnacion. "But their devotion to the Church and their faith motivates them to want to give their children an education that is academically challenging and also provides a solid spiritual foundation."
The tremendous importance of a Catholic education is seen in the commitment of the Monreal family who have ten children all of whom have or will attend St. Joachim's. In fact, the Monreal's have two sons who have already graduated from St. Joachim's' and are now attending San Joaquin Memorial High School - to be joined next year by sister Christina. If this weren't enough to show this family's commitment to a Catholic education, the Monreals will also have four children enrolled at St. Joachim School next school year.
"I'll admit that it's a struggle a lot of times especially with a family of 10," said Jim Monreal. "But the number-one priority for my wife and myself is to provide our children with a solid spiritual foundation and an excellent education."
Among the many fruits of St. Joachim School is the growth of vocations - current St. Joachim's pastor, Father Larry Toschi, O.S.J., and associate pastor, Father Carlos Esquivel, O.S. J., graduated from St. Joachim School, as did Father Philip Massetti, O.S.J.
"I am definitely a priest because of the impact that St. Joachim's school had on me," said Father Toschi. "My eighth grade teacher encouraged me to pray about becoming a priest and, although I had never considered it before that time, I did pray about it and think that my vocation is a direct reflection of the basic values I learned at school which haven't changed and are with me everyday."
As the Church and the school are woven together in the same faith community, the values and morals that are learned in school are further developed through the constant and direct interaction with the Church.
"We exist as a community of faith to facilitate religious, spiritual, moral and academic development in the children," said Father Toschi. "Our teachers impart more than education-they also serve as a witness to our faith."
By beginning and ending each school day in prayer, the students are actively participating in their spiritual growth through the guidance of the sisters, priests and the Church.
"It's rewarding seeing the children all coming to Mass together and participating in the liturgy," said Father Larry. "We address the growth of the whole child as the mind, body and soul are designed by God to function together."
Another testament to the emphasis on the family which St. Joachim's espouses as well as the tremendous influence that St. Joachim's has had on fulfilling it's mission of educating the mind and soul are the numerous multi-generational families that continue to send their children to the school.
There are a tremendous number of families who have generations of children who have attended St. Joachim's and helped to build a family and spiritual tradition. One of the richest family legacies which continues to this day is that of the Massetti family. Giovanni and Rosa Massetti emigrated from Italy in 1914 and brought with them a strong devotion to the Catholic Church which was imparted on their four sons-Joe, Segundo, Fred and Angelo. Fred and Angelo were the first of the Masssetti's to attend St. Joachim's graduating in 1929 and 1933 respectively-establishing this family's spiritual tradition.
In subsequent years, Segundo had ten children who attended St. Joachim's, while Fred's four children attended and Angelo also sent his three children through St. Joachim School. At one time, there were 17 Massettis enrolled at St. Joachim's at the same time spanning three generations.
The Bettini family is a four generation family who all attended St. Joachim's after Alfonso and Emma Valerosi emigrated from Italy and put their daughter, Mary, through St. Joachim's. Mary then married Roy Bettini and had two children, Jim and Nell, who both attended St. Joachim's. While Nell moved away from Madera, Jim and his wife Maureen have put three children through St. Joachim School - Tina, Jason and Tiffany - and their youngest son Dominic will be in sixth grade next year. Tina has continued this rich family legacy, as her daughter Rochelle will be in the third grade.
"St. Joachim's is a family tradition and although I feel the parents are the primary educators and that instruction in the Catholic faith starts at home, St. Joachim's reinforces these values," said Jim Bettini. "Also, our children receive the highest quality education while also learning more about their faith."
The positive impact that families with ties to the school display can also act as a strong witness to others of the great benefit of a Catholic education.
Because of her own spiritual renewal and rediscovering her Catholic roots in conjunction with what she observed in the families of friends who had children in St. Joachim's, Pam Larios and her husband Jim made the decision to enroll both their children last year.
Chelsea who is in sixth grade transferred from James Madison and Spencer was enrolled in Kindergarten, after two years of prayer and contemplation by their parents.
"I made the decision to return back to the Catholic faith and my husband and I spent the past years going through classes at the church and working with Father Larry," said Pam Larios. "And I saw such a positive impact on the children and the family unit of friends who had children there, that I wanted to provide the same opportunity for my children in terms of receiving great academic instruction but also spiritual teaching and growing in their faith."
So, while Chelsea was preparing for her first Holy Communion, Pam was also preparing for her confirmation. In April of this year, Pam was confirmed and then in May Chelsea received her first communion, bringing the entire family closer and united in their faith.
"My kids have really changed and love to talk about their faith," said Pam Larios. "And Spencer is so eager to be able to receive communion and no matter where we are eating, Spencer will always be the first one to tell us that we can't eat until we pray. It has been the greatest thing for our family."
The 75th anniversary of St. Joachim School commemorates the fulfillment of it's mission in providing the highest quality of education - academically and spiritually - from 1927 to 2003. Generations of families have continued this tradition with parents and children occupying the same classrooms.
There have been adaptations to the building and the curriculum in order to respond to the academic challenges and new technologies available to provide for the greatest academic instruction.
However, there is one constant that every generation, past and future, can count on - St. Joachim School will never change in its commitment to religious and spiritual instruction as a primary component of educating children. While ensuring that all students graduate with a solid academic background, St. Joachim's true legacy is developing a love for their faith in God with a devotion to the Catholic Church as the real foundation upon which the students lives are built-a spiritual legacy that will last for eternity.