St. Stephen School provided ‘a foundation for life’

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

It's the 90th anniversary of St. Stephen Protomartyr School in south St. Louis, and Joan Lawder has a multi-layered connection that spans those years.

Her father, William Federer, was one of the developers of the Holly Hills neighborhood north of Carondelet Park, which incorporated California concepts with the amenities of urban life and design, according to "Holly Hills," a history of the area written by NiNi Harris. St. Stephen Parish was created in the neighborhood to serve Catholics moving to the new homes there. Harris reported that the founding pastor, Msgr. Joseph G. Hoelting, used to tell parishioners, "I am the shepherd of Holly Hills and you are my sheep."

Joan's brother, the late Jesuit Father William Federer, was a member of the first class at St. Stephen. He served as a lieutenant in the Army in World War II, entered the Jesuits in 1947 and was ordained in 1957. Her other three siblings went to St. Stephen, and she was a student starting in 1935 as a kindergartner, attending a class in the back of the church. All eight of Joan's children attended St. Stephen as well as five of 31 grandchildren. One of her daughters, Julie O'Brien, taught at St. Stephen until earlier this year.

Joan, 87, has been a member of the parish almost all of her life, and she was a substitute teacher at the school at one time. She and another parishioner started the auction and Joan and her husband were Scout leaders.

The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon taught at the school when Joan was a student. She recalled their long habits and that "they were a little stricter I'm sure than what it is now."

The sisters sold penny candy on the steps of the school, Joan recalled. She attended during World War II and remembered buying war stamps, collecting tin and other metals to recycle and making blankets for soldiers. In the sixth grade, one student who was tall for his age went before the draft board and tried to enter military service. The youngster was denied, and his actions were reported in the newspaper the next day.

The parish priest would visit the school twice a week to teach religion class, "and you were scared to death when he would ask you a question," Joan said.

Clothing was more formal, and students were forbidden from wearing any shoes besides leather ones. "It was much more regimented than it is now, and I think that's good that they loosened up on that," she said.

Joan still is friends with several classmates, including Joan Schuler Thieman, Patty Walsh Buhr and Marianne Voss Burnes.

Joan attended Loretto Academy High School and Webster College. She met her husband, Michael, a Murphysboro, Ill., native who attended St. Louis University. They met when Joan's brother, Richard, had a party in the Federer's back yard. It took him three months to ask her on a date. They married in 1953.

Joan majored in English and education. Hired at Rosati-Kain High School, she was among the first lay teachers in the archdiocese's high schools other than gym teachers.

The lay teachers now at St. Stephen School do an outstanding job, Joan said. The school has kept the housing market strong because people know they're getting a good education, she noted.

Michael, who practiced law for 66 years, noted that other schools in the city closed while St. Stephen made a major effort to increase enrollment. "It's an anchor" of the neighborhood, he said.

Joan said St. Stephen Parish has been "a vital part of our lives. We chose it for its friendliness. The people there are not worried about the social ladder."

They've lived through a lot of changes, but St. Stephen has been a stable force. "The faith has guided the school to continued success," Joan said. "It's provided not only a good education, but a good Catholic education and a foundation for life."

The Lawders lived on Federer Place in Holly Hills before moving into her parents' former home, the home where she was born. Her father formed Holly Hills with Gus Arendes and Don Livingston on land originally destined to be Missouri Pacific Railroad train yards. Instead, the yards were built in De Soto.

The Lawders remember Msgr. Hoelting, who was pastor of St. Stephen from 1926-60, as poetic, describing him as "a Shakespearean actor" and quite a character. 

>> St. Stephen today

St. Stephen Protomartyr School offers a variety of opportunities through new classes, extracurricular activities, sports and growth in spirituality.

The school offers Spanish, music, art, computer classes and an English Tutoring program for students who speak English as a second language. The school is freshly painted, has new lighting for the parking lots and has smart boards in every classroom. Extracurricular opportunities include robotics, band, speech, Vacation Bible School, Luke 18 retreats, a French club and Scouts. A school lunch program and before- and after-care are also offered for any school family.

The parish's 90th anniversary is being observed with a fundraising effort to help support current and future generations of students by investing in technology upgrades. For information, call (314) 752-4700. 

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