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 | By Elizabeth Hansen

St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic School Forms Disciples in the Heart of Jackson

More Than 100 Years Old, St. Mary Star of the Sea Elementary School Is an Anchor in the Heart of Jackson’s Historic Downtown

Father Tim Nelson, pastor of St. Mary’s since 2011, is proud of his flock’s relationship with and witness to the neighborhood, and he sees the school in particular as the parish’s main means of evangelization in the community. While that might not be a surprising mission for a parochial school, what is remarkable is the fruit of Father Tim’s insistence that no child be denied a Catholic education because of financial need. Thanks to diocesan scholarships, generous parish tithing and personal outreach, St. Mary Star of the Sea Elementary School has a tight-knit and diverse student body.

“We probably have the most ethnically diverse and racially diverse student population in the city,” Father Tim says.

Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of St. Mary’s 96 students are Hispanic – in comparison, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, less than 7 percent of the city of Jackson’s population is Hispanic. Additionally, 12 percent of the students are Black and 12 percent report two or more ethnicities.

“When I first came (as pastor), the school administration was concerned about enrollment,” Father Tim says. “I’m the pastor of the Hispanic community here in Jackson, and I know a Catholic education in Mexico, for instance, is very expensive. A lot of Hispanic families don’t even consider it. Having an empty seat in our school does us no good, and does the child no good. So I reached out to the Hispanic population – Barack Obama was president – and said, ‘We have an African American as president; there’s no reason we can’t have a Hispanic president someday. But you need an education.”

As long as there was space in the school, Father Tim was determined that financial need wouldn’t bar a child from being admitted, a vision that was slowly but surely rewarded. Thanks to his outreach, Hispanic families at the school began growing in number over the next three years, building up to where they are now. Father Tim challenges his parishioners to meet a 5 percent tithing goal in order to help supplement financial aid offered by the Diocese of Lansing, and St. Mary’s has risen to the occasion.

It’s been a leap of faith for both him and his parishioners, but in return, he says, the school is sustainable and debt-free.

The Diocese of Lansing’s Department of Education, funded by DSA dollars, supports the operation of Catholic schools across the diocese.

“I know Bishop Boyea is very dedicated to Catholic schools,” says Father Tim, but he notes that crucial administrative leadership and the processing of diocesan support is only possible “through the generous donations to the DSA.”

 Catholic schools form disciples, he believes, because they are immersed daily into a world where faith and virtue directly shape the way we act toward God and others.

“These kids at a young age can appreciate the importance of honesty, compassion,” Father Tim says. “So when they come to school, they’re immersed in that and see it modeled. We might have a child with autism who needs more help, and the other kids help that child. You’ve got generosity, understanding – those values are being played out on a simple, common, day-to-day level.”

Soaking in those values during the day has a ripple effect outside of school.

“(Some of) these kids come from difficult circumstances in their home, and what they receive at St. Mary’s School, they take in [and] take it home,” says Father Tim. “I think what they learn at the school can help them [there] and can help improve the home environment as well.”

 With the school situated in downtown Jackson, sirens are a common interruption. When they hear them, students are taught to make the sign of the cross as a prayer for those in need and for the first responders.

 “When I told the police and fire department about that, that was very touching – to know the kids … know the need of someone in trouble and the need of prayer,” Father Tim says. He remembers another story about a mother and her son who were in a downtown store when, hearing a siren, the boy ran to the door and made the sign of the cross. After his mother explained what he was doing, the store owner was so moved she began coming to St. Mary’s. “She’s very faithful now,” Father Tim says.

 With a school Mass every Friday and monthly eucharistic adoration, that type of childlike faith is fed at St. Mary’s, regardless of background or even religion.

“Nobody’s forced to say the prayers, but all the kids do,” Father Tim says, adding that it’s common for a couple of students each year to ask to become Catholic – this year three students will be baptized.

Such a nurturing faith environment, coupled with a student population that reflects the diversity of the Church, prepares students well for life, Father Tim believes.

“The kids grow up with friends of different races, languages, traditions – that becomes second nature to them,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

It’s also a deeply Catholic thing – and at St. Mary Star of the Sea, it’s integral to their commitment to Catholic education.

Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Lansing

  • 35 schools
  • Pre-K through 12th grade
  • Over 8,000 students
  • New religion curriculum in development
  • Over $600,000 in tuition assistance from Diocese of Lansing
  • Every student attends Mass at least once each week
A Catholic School in the Heart of Jackson Forms Disciples by Immersing the Students in a World of Faith and Virtue

A Catholic education is among the best gifts parents can give their children. The Diocese of Lansing’s Catholic school system exists to support you in educating your children and instilling in them the Truth of the Catholic faith. Grounded in strong and obvious Catholic identity, each of our schools is committed to developing the whole person, nurturing successful students who also are faithful followers of Christ and servant leaders in their communities.