Our Lady of Malibu Catholic School celebrates 50 years

A school assembly in the early 1960s. Our Lady of Malibu Catholic School is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday.

The church is having a full-scale celebration on Saturday commemorating the history of the school, and its relationship to the parish and community involvement.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

In 1958, Our Lady of Malibu opened the doors to an adjacent parish school, housing 89 students in only four classrooms, taught by four teachers. The school was the vision of the Rev. Joseph Burbage, the second priest of the parish, which opened in 1946 and held its first masses in the Malibu Courthouse before moving to its current location in Winter Canyon.

Burbage saw a need for Catholic education for the area’s Catholic youth beyond the parish walls, as, at the time, there were no such nearby schools.

In just four years, another four classrooms were added to the school, and the faculty doubled. By 1965, enrollment was marked at 365 students, of which a substantial number came from surrounding areas outside of Malibu.

Today, the parish and school still remain in the same buildings and on the same property. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the school, which now houses 154 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, and nine full time teachers.

On Saturday, the school will pay homage to the anniversary with a full-scale celebration commemorating the history of the school, and its relationship to the parish and its community involvement. A dinner, awards ceremony, cocktails and silent auction will be featured.

In prior years, the school’s end-of-the-year festivities had only included current active families from the school and parish, but this year’s event, with 300 confirmed guests, includes families and individuals who in the past have had connections to Our Lady of Malibu.

Suzanne Ricci and Edie O’Brien, current principals of OLM, hope the 50th anniversary will be the advent of a re-fostering of old relationships with the school and parish that will lead to new ones.

“We want to make it one cohesive community by including parishioners and having community members come to our school, not just utilizing school parents. People are coming back and re-connecting,” Ricci said.

At the celebration, an award will be presented to Monsignor John Sheridan, former priest of Our Lady of Malibu who came to the parish in 1964. Sheridan retired from a full-time position in 1990, though he still works and lives onsite.

Darlene Reid, a parent who sent four children through the school and has continued to remain involved, will also be honored.

In Sheridan’s 44-year relationship with OLM, he has seen both large and small changes take place, but said he feels the core of the school is still the same when he first arrived. Since the mid 60s, the surrounding community has changed more than the church has, Sheridan said.

Smaller numbers of children, in addition to a larger number of Catholic parish schools in the surrounding area, has caused a decline in the number of students at the school, Sheridan said, with classes much smaller than they were a little more than two decades ago. Even in the early ’80s, classes had as many as 30 students, he said.

The school’s classes were also once taught only by church sisters, who, in the early days, lived with school families and were driven to and from school along with students. In 1962, the sisters moved into an adjacent convent, which still exists and houses sisters today. The school’s current full-time teaching body is comprised of lay teachers.

Sister Mary Campbell, who has lived in the convent since 1983 and is a former teacher and principal of the school, has seen changes even in the past two decades, noting that at one time, the school’s policy was to accept any Catholic family the school could take. If the student’s family could not afford the full tuition, they were asked to provide any donation they could and given a form of a scholarship.

This meant sometimes the school had to make do and just get by. One year, the school received an anonymous donation that allowed the purchase of much-needed textbooks and new uniforms for students.

“Generosity and giving kept us going, no matter what it was,” Sister Mary said.

Though a low tuition and a “scrapping by” mentality is no longer necessary, a dependence and strong relationship with an actively involved parent community is still present at the school.

“They’re involved in everything,” Edie O’Brien said of OLM parents. “It’s a small and intimate community.”

Over the years, parents have been essential in the planning process for the celebrations, fundraisers and an overall vision for the school, in addition to providing help for various situations and needs that have arisen, such as the ramifications of the October fire.

The fire destroyed the school’s computer lab and teacher workroom, in addition to causing smoke and ash damage in other classrooms and on the grounds. Some of the OLM parents worked to facilitate construction of two new buildings, slated to open in the upcoming summer, in addition to putting together a makeshift computer lab for the interim.

Infrastructure plans are not the only ideas for expanding the small school; Ricci and O’Brien hope to increase art and music electives, hire more teachers, create a strong writing program and upgrade to the latest technology.

“We want to bring education alive in a modern, 21st century way,” Ricci said.

The parish is also expanding. the Rev. Bill Kerze, current priest of Our Lady Malibu, has seen the parish body nearly double since he took over a little more than 12 years ago.

Geographically speaking, the size of the parish is 200 square miles, running through Malibu Canyon to the other side of the Ventura freeway. Kerze estimates of the 1,100 households affiliated with the church, roughly half regularly remain active in the parish and school.

The parish has maintained the strong relationship with the school and students it has had since its early days. Students attend mass once a week and take religion classes, and many are involved in church programs such as Mission to Mexico, a service trip to Tijuana, OLM conducts four to five times a year.

Most Catholic parishes are directly affiliated and help run a Catholic school, Kerze said. The Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest archdiocese in the United States, has 288 parishes with 216 affiliated elementary schools.

Yet, while students are directly connected to the parish, not all OLM families are necessarily Catholic families. Principal O’Brien called the school’s community more “faith based” than Catholic based.

“The majority [of students] are not strong in one faith,” said Principal Ricci, “OLM radiates a Christ-like atmosphere where children of other religions are comfortable. [Catholic] service is something practiced and lived through [their] life long habits.”

Ricci believes the school tries to instill certain values and behaviors in the students, rather than specific religious beliefs. Kerze agreed, and said the goal of the school has stayed “explicit” since its founding.

“It’s helping the children learn values and put them in practice … to know what’s going on in the world and [hear] a call to live just lives, not only to learn, but experience that the world is much wider,” Kerze said.