St. Joseph school marks 150 years

By Joe Lee
MADISON – As Doug Harkins and his wife, Kimberly, watch their twins Jacob and Clare graduate from St. Joseph High School next week, the moment will be even more poignant for Doug, a 1988 St. Joe grad and cardiologist with Jackson Heart Clinic, because of the presence of his mother, Rosemary. A 1950 graduate, she will join her son and daughter-in-law at Thalia Mara Hall as her grandchildren represent the third Harkins generation to cross the stage in St. Joe cap and gown.

But as remarkable as that accomplishment may be, the 70 years spanning the family’s graduations doesn’t even cover half the era represented by the school. The humble beginnings stretch all the way back to 1870, and the St. Joseph Catholic School 150th Class Reunion will launch July 1 and continue through the end of 2020.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime for all of us,” said Tricia Harris, St. Joe coordinator of special events and enrollment. “We have the opportunity to put forth the importance of academic achievement and a Catholic education — there are so many influential people that have graduated from this school and gone on to amazing things.”
In addition to an updated Bruin logo that reflects the sesquicentennial – seen on car bumpers all over the Jackson area – the school will ask for a special proclamation from the state legislature, as well the next Mississippi governor.
“The whole yearbook design for the 2019-2020 school year will integrate a lot of ‘look back’,” Harris said. “The newspaper will be digitized and integrate the logo. Every athletic team will have some semblance of the 150th anniversary worked into their uniform, helmet, and ball they play with. It will constantly tout the fact that we’re in celebration mode.”
While the school has relocated several times its existence, much of what has always drawn both Catholics and non-Catholics to St. Joe remains solidly in place.

“It impacted our perspective on everything,” said 1957 grad Con Maloney, whose high school years were spent in a building that backed up to Central High School in downtown Jackson. “Our class had about 35 people, so I got to know a lot of them very intimately over the years. We were taught by the Mercy Nuns, who were very strict on us. One thing the school never had to buy was erasers. We would harass the Central students and they would throw erasers at us over the fence separating the schools.”
Con’s son, Chris, has returned home to manage the Mississippi Braves. He graduated in 1980, giving the Maloney family a second generation at the school. But a truly unique perspective belongs to David Wissel, who has taught Theology and coached track at St. Joe since 1984. He taught Doug Harkins and is now teaching Doug’s youngest son, Noah.
“Teaching a son or daughter of former students is interesting,” Wissel said. “There are similarities and mannerisms that seem to stand out. Each brings something different to the table.
“When a student walks out of St. Joe for the last time, I hope they are a better person, equipped to make their mark on the world, and that they have a stronger faith and the confidence to be successful in whatever God has planned for them.”
Terry Cassreino, whose daughter Camryn is a current Bruin, credits his Catholic education with shaping the person he is today. A newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Bruin faculty in 2011, his journalism program wins dozens of awards each year at the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s annual conference in Oxford. The student newspaper, The Bear Facts, was ranked in the nation’s top 50 by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

“I see firsthand how a Catholic education is helping Camryn deepen her faith and appreciation of the Catholic Church while preparing for her college and life as an adult,” Cassreino said. “And I am beyond proud of my current and former students — St. Joseph Catholic School, without a doubt, has the best high school student media program in the state. It is incredible to me, and extremely important, that we are accomplishing this in a Catholic setting grounded in the teachings of our faith.”
Ronnie Russell, now in his 15th year as band director, instructed two students that went on to win Grammy awards for contributions to major motion picture soundtracks, as well many who performed with college bands all over the southeast and beyond.
“Our campus minister, Kathryn Scikets, is a former St. Joe student and drum major,” Russell said. “One of the most recently-ordained priests in the Jackson Diocese, Father Aaron Williams, is a former band student. Perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever been given came when he asked me to play trumpet in his very first Mass as a priest.”
Theology teacher Ryan Starrett and Sckiets, who teaches in the English department and graduated in 2013, both work with many faculty that taught them in high school.
“I did not expect to teach at St. Joe, but God works in mysterious ways,” Sckiets said. “When the campus ministry position was open, I thought it would be a really unique opportunity to grow in my faith and hopefully help students grow in theirs. I was — and still am — fortunate to have many great role models at St. Joe who showed me by example how to not only be great teachers, but great people.”
“The thing that impresses me most about St. Joe is that you don’t just feel you are part of a school — you feel like you are part of a family and community,” said Bruin athletic director Michael Howell. “We have a unique balance of education, arts and athletics. Our coaches do a great job of working together to make sure our student-athletes can be successful in all areas of school community.”
At the helm of the Catholic school that opened its doors barely 50 years after Mississippi became a state is Dena Kinsey.
“I want our students to understand the importance of the Hand of God,” Kinsey said. “From the faith of a pastor and a few Sisters of Mercy, a school was established based in truth that has overcome all obstacles to not only survive, but thrive for 150 years. The love of God prevails, and St. Joe is a living example in our most secular world of the power of God.”

JACKSON – A view of St. Joseph High School located downtown in 1932. See more photos online at (photo courtesy St. Joseph High School Archives)

(Joe Lee is a member of Madison St. Francis Parish and owner of Dogwood Publishing.)