By Gord Bowes, News staff
Many things have changed since the days when St. Jean de Brebeuf shared space with an elementary school, but alumni say the sense of family that began there continues today.
With a student body of just 450 in the first year, it was as if everyone knew each other, says, who was in the first Grade 9 class.
As the school grew, traditions were formed and rivalries against other schools began. Many graduates came back to teach and today students flock to the school, even though the current building may be a little long in the tooth and lack amenities like air conditions, says Cupido.
“It is without a doubt a family,” he says.
This weekend, the St. Jean de Brebeuf family celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Four decades ago, there was a need for a second Catholic high school to serve the growing population on the Mountain, recalls Leonard Varrasso.
So in February 1974, the Catholic school board decided it would open a second high school to ease the pressure on St. Thomas More, which was at the time located on East 5th Street in the building now used by St. Charles Adult Education Centre.
Varrasso was appointed principal of the new high school and tasked with organizing the launch, including finding a site, a name and everything in between.
“We really began from scratch,” he says.
In keeping with the board’s habit of naming schools after the Canadian Martyrs, Varrasso’s committee chose St. Jean de Brebeuf.
“Of course, he was the greatest of the Jesuit martyrs,” he says.
They decided against anglicizing the name, which made for some interesting questions on the football field, says Robert Coons, who served as SJB’s first student council president.
“We would be asked when playing other schools if were some new French school,” recalls Coons, now a vice-principal at Brebeuf.
The new high school was housed in extra space at Blessed Sacrament elementary school on Fennell Avenue East.
About 450 students in Grade 9 and 10 attended the first year (these were the days before full funding for Catholic education). Varrasso says it was tough convincing parents and students that Brebeuf would be expanded to include the senior grades the next year.
The board did receive approval and a new home was built at 50 Lisgar Ct. for about $750,000 and opened in time for Brebeuf’s second year. That building currently houses Academie Catholique Mere Teresa.
“There were outstanding leaders at the board and the school level that were committed to providing Catholic education and they found ways to respond to all the challenges,” says current board chair Pat Daly.
Going from the thought approval to start a new high school to opening the doors six months later and then being in its own building 12 months later, wouldn’t happen so quickly today, admits Varrasso.
“We knew there was going to be something, but we didn’t have any plans for Lisgar,” he says.
Ten years later, the school held 1,066 students. In 1985, the Catholic school system received full funding for all grades and, as part of a Supreme Court decision, some surplus property from public school boards.
The Hamilton Catholic board acquired Southmount from the public board; it shared the Acadia Drive building with French high school George P. Vanier.
Three years later, St. Jean de Brebeuf had full use of the building, its current home. The number of students kept growing; it peaked at more than 1,900 about five years ago. Today, it houses about 1,650.
While a new building would be nice, says Coons, the Acadia site has been well maintained and updated, with a new chapel, new library, new gym, replacement of lockers, windows and doors, a new running track and an artificial turf sports field under construction.
“The commitment to this site is clear,” says Coons.
Daly, who is also the trustee for the central Mountain, says the board has spent about $7.6 million upgrading Brebeuf over the last 15 years and will continue to invest in the school, including extensive electrical upgrades in the near future.
“Our plan is to keep upgrading it so it is similar to all of our schools,” says the board chair.