Helias High School opened its doors in September 1956. Local Catholic leaders and families had spent four years
raising $1 million to build a new school to replace St. Peter High School. The post-World War II Baby Boom
resulted in 1,600 students attending St. Peter Elementary and High School and Immaculate Conception School An
Executive Committee was formed to study the need for a new inter-parish high school. The committee was headed
by the two parish priests – Monsignor J.A. Vogelweid, pastor of St. Peter, and Father Paul Kertz, pastor of
Immaculate Conception. It was chaired by local businessmen Louis Landwehr and Clem Dulle and consisted of 26
other members, split evenly between the two parishes in Jefferson City. The first fundraising drive for a new inter-parish high school was held in 1952.
Since the Jefferson City Diocese had not yet been formed, the area was part of the St. Louis Archdiocese. Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter came to town to bless the fund drive and encourage support. He challenged parishioners to stand up for “their Catholic ideals.” By December 1954, $800,000 had been raised. The Archdiocese agreed to assume the outstanding pledges and gave its blessing for the project to begin. On the day after Christmas, more than 300 people attended a groundbreaking ceremony on a 14-acre site on Swifts Highway across from La Salette Seminary. Construction began the following month.
Meanwhile, the tasks of picking a name and a mascot for the school got underway. The Executive Committee announced in November that year that the school would be named for the Rev. Ferdinand Helias, a Jesuit missionary from Belgium who came to central Missouri in 1838. Father Helias was instrumental in establishing seven Catholic churches in the area. A student contest was held to name the new Helias mascot. More than 250 names were submitted. Chosen by a committee of clergy and lay people, the name Crusaders barely beat out Knights. Other considerations were Trojans, Pioneers, Squires, Spartans, Hawks and Swifts. Submitting the winning name was Jim DeLong, a freshman at St. Peter High School. A newspaper story said DeLong suggested the name because Father Helias was a crusader for Catholic education and Pope Pius X, selected as the school’s patron saint, was a crusader for frequent communion. On August 26, 1956, an Open House was held for the new school. A program for the event said its total cost, including grounds, construction, architectural fees, ground improvements and school equipment was approximately $1,075,000.
When the doors of Helias High School opened on September 4, 1956, its 467 students had a new, modern building, but the strong educational program was much as it had been at St. Peter. The Christian Brothers and School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught at St. Peter continued at Helias. As a policy of their order, Christian Brothers could teach only male students, so for 13 years, boys and girls were segregated at Helias. Girls occupied the second floor and were taught primarily by nuns. Boys and their Christian Brother teachers were on the first floor. The girls principal continued to be Sister M. Adelaide, while Brother J. Edmund was named principal of the boys. Archbishop Ritter appointed the Rev. Gerard Poelker as the first Helias administrator to handle school finances. Two other newcomers that first year were lay teachers and coaches, Jack Schnieders and Jim Rackers – names that would become very familiar to Helias. In all, the faculty was composed of 18 religious and three lay members during the first year.
The Christian Brothers and School Sisters set a tone that was both strict and caring. Boys were required to wear neckties every day. Anyone who arrived at school tieless had to rent a tie from the school for 10 cents. Helias eventually became known for its strong athletic tradition, but the first year was tough. The football team lost every game but one. The basketball team also had a dismal season. But everything changed the next year. The football team won every game and started a winning streak that extended more than three years – 32 games won with no losses and four district championships. It was the longest winning streak for any high school football team in Missouri at that time. In 1960, head Football Coach Jack Schnieders was named U.S. Catholic High School Coach of the Year by The New World, a Chicago-based Catholic newspaper. Meanwhile, the girls had no
athletic teams, but comprised a formidable cheering section in a group called the Pepettes. They attended every home and away football and basketball game.
Financially, the early years were difficult for Helias. When it opened, tuition was $70, and the parishes contributed another $70 per student. But for the first few years, the school operated with a deficit.
In 1965, an addition on the front of the school added six classrooms, two science labs, an audio-visual room, a chapel and business offices.
In 1969, Helias became fully co-educational after the Christian Brothers in Rome rescinded a rule, thereby permitting their members to teach female students which made it economically feasible to expand the curriculum to offer certain classes that would be too small without combining boys and girls.
For its first 15 years, Helias was run by priests, brothers and nuns, who served as principals and administrators. When Brother William Rhody left in 1971 after five years as principal, he recommended his assistant, Jim Rackers, be named as his replacement. So in 1971, after approval by the School Board and the Bishop, Rackers became the first lay principal of Helias and the only lay principal of a Catholic high school in Missouri. The 1970s saw the advent of girls’ sports. In 1973, the Lady Crusaders had a track team, in 1974 they had basketball, and in 1975 they added tennis. Eventually, the school song had to be adjusted to reflect the change – from “loyal boys” to “loyal teams are marching onward to victory.”
Seeing the need for long-term financial support for the school, a group of parents and alumni formed the Helias Foundation in 1974. The Foundation started annual fund drives, raising an average of $45,000 a year in the early years. The money was divided each year between capital improvements projects and school operations, which enabled the school to maintain an affordable tuition rate. The Foundation also began to receive and invest bequests, memorials and other gifts from supporters. In 1979, the Foundation helped fund a new fine arts wing for the high school, providing more space for music and art programs.
What started as a school predominantly taught by religious men and women had changed by the school’s 25th anniversary. The sharp decline of religious vocations had begun and by 1981, lay members on the faculty outnumbered religious members 30 to 13.
In 1984, Helias won its first state 4A football championship, beating Joplin Parkwood. In the 1980s, Helias won 14 state championships in six sports – half of those team titles were in wrestling, which that decade grew into a dynasty respected statewide. During the 1987-88 school year alone, Helias swept first place in Missouri in four sports – boys and girls cross country, baseball and wrestling.
The 1987-88 school year was also the last year for the Pepettes, which had been an important part of the school’s history. At that time, what the religious faculty lacked in numbers, some made up for in longevity. The longest- serving religious faculty member was Brother James Abell. He was well known for his skill and patience in teaching difficult math concepts, as well as his support of students in extracurricular activities. After 45 years at Helias, Brother James died in January 2002.
The decade opened with another major expansion of Helias High School. Construction began on a new fieldhouse, which was completed in 1992. In 1998, it was re-dedicated in honor of longtime teacher and administrator Jim Rackers. The new sports facility was a fitting tribute to the school’s increasingly successful athletic programs. By 1992, wrestling teams under Coach Mike Jeffries had won eight state championships in 10 years. By the end of the decade, Helias had 18 athletic teams (nine for boys and nine for girls) and 16 clubs and organized activities, giving students a broad range of ways to be involved in school outside the classroom. In 1997, the administration at Helias changed. Jim Rackers resigned as chief administrator and became the school’s director of development and the executive director of the Helias Foundation. Denny Hughes was named chief administrator, Sister Jean Dietrich, a School Sister of Notre Dame, became principal, and Stan Ochsner was named dean of students.
A New Century
At the turn of the century, enrollment at Helias topped 870. Crowded conditions led to the largest expansion project in school history. A master plan was developed in 2001, and the following year, a capital fund drive was launched to raise $4.2 million. In 2003, construction began on the project, which added 10 classrooms and an elevator and doubled the size of the cafeteria. The project was finished by the start of the 2004-05 school year. In 2004-2005, Helias had its highest enrollment ever at 906 students – nearly twice the enrollment when the school opened in 1956. In kicking off Helias’ 50th anniversary year with a special mass at the school on August 14, 2005, Bishop John Gaydos of the Jefferson City Diocese reaffirmed the school’s Christian mission: “As we come to the altar this day, we come recognizing all the people who have benefited from the great grace that is Helias High School, and we also are very eager that this mission, this grace will continue to grow, to enrich our community, to enrich our world, but most importantly will continue to be a reflection of the glory of God.” *
In 2006 Mr. Hughes stepped down as Chief Administrator and Didier Aur, a product of Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, TN was named the President of Helias. In 2010 the name of the school was officially changed to Helias Catholic High School. Among the accomplishments during Mr. Aur's tenure was the purchase of 16 cres on Myrtle St. adjacent to Helias for possible future development. In June, 2013 Mr. Aur accepted a position in his hometown of Memphis and Fr. Stephen Jones was named by
Bishop Gaydos as the President of Helias Catholic.
* Nancy Vessell, a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and long-time resident of Jefferson City researched, prepared and wrote this history of Helias for the celebration of our
Golden Anniversary in 2005. Her two children are graduates of Helias High School and she is past secretary and vice president of the Helias Foundation Board of Directors.
Excelling students centered on Christ
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