(OSV News) – Traveling east from Lexington into the Appalachian region, one leaves behind Kentucky's bluegrass and horse-breeding region and enters its poorest area. But in the midst of the region's poverty, and in the face of some latent cultural hostility toward Catholics and even the value of education, two Catholic schools in Appalachia are giving a witness to the faith and hope for a future filled with opportunity.
In Johnson County, with a population of fewer than 22,000 people and 24% living in poverty, according to U.S. census data, two Catholic schools – Our Lady of the Mountains School and The Piarist School – sit six miles apart, but provide between them a pre-K-12 Catholic education to the surrounding Appalachian region.
Fr. Flanagan, the administrator of Our Lady of the Mountains in Paintsville, Kentucky, told OSV News that the school was established in the mid-1940s, and operates out of the Mayo Mansion, a local "historical treasure."
Our Lady of the Mountains offers an early learning center and pre-Kindergarten and K-5 curricula. However, most of the students who attend are not even Catholic, but their parents continue to send them.
"One factor is that this is a school where the kids have a chance for good, quality instruction due to the small class sizes," Fr. Flanagan said. "Another is that we also teach the students Catholic values, they attend religion classes, and we go to Mass once a week."
The Our Lady of the Mountains school charges tuition, but the priest works confidentially with families to determine what they can pay.
"We help people out as best we can (so that their children can get an education here) because this is an economically depressed neighborhood," Fr. Flanagan said.
Bernadette "Bernie" Carroll, Our Lady of the Mountains' principal, who also teaches fourth and fifth grades, told OSV News that the school's Early Learning Center did not exist seven years ago when she first arrived at the school. However, it really took off when the curriculum was finally approved.
"My hopes for the future are to see the school grow, and enrollment increase," she said, "even as a Catholic school in an area where actual Catholic students are scarce."
Students who graduate from Our Lady of the Mountains can seek to continue their Catholic education at The Piarist School, a college preparatory school for grades six through 12, located in Hagerhill, Kentucky.
The Piarist Fathers operate the school – and do not charge tuition.
Piarist Father Thomas Carroll, the school's day-to-day administrator, told OSV News the school first opened August 1990 in Martin, Kentucky, before moving to its present location in Hagerhill at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
"We started with one freshman class, and added a new one every year until the 1993-94 school year when we established our first four-year program," Fr. Carroll said.
"I always wanted to work in Appalachia with its people," Fr. Carroll, a Pittsburgh native, said. "After arriving here in August of 1988, I got my wish."
Fr. Carroll said from the outset, skeptical cries of "you can't do that" dogged the Piarists' decision not to charge tuition. But the school has successfully made Catholic education a true option compared to the public schools, since he travels the U.S. raising donations.
"I was on the road for 21 weeks in 2021, averaging two new donors for every church visited," he said. "As a result, the number of benefactors that we have grows every year, and today we have many long-term supporters."
Thanks to this generosity, The Piarist School transports its students, spread across six counties, to and from the school, with six minivans. The school also has on staff 10 full-time teachers, one part-time music teacher, two office personnel, four maintenance workers – who also help do projects as needed in the local community – and one outreach person.
"We have outstanding teachers who want to stay here," Fr. Carroll said. "They have small classes and the kids who are in them want to learn."
Providing free Catholic education in itself gives a long-term witness to the Catholic faith, but so far has not won over many hearts and minds. As Fr. Carroll noted, the area has a lot of hostility toward Catholics that goes back even further than the American Revolution.
"Over the ages, it trickled down, and we are still trying to change that," he said, noting they are part of a true "mission diocese" in the Diocese of Lexington. "But people still turn around and walk away from us."
Teacher Gary Rosys, who has been with the school since 1995, teaches math and science to some of the school's larger classes. Three of his own children are graduates of The Piarist School, including "one who went to a special college hybrid class during her last two years here."
"Teaching in this area is different," Rosys said, noting that educators can come up against some negative views toward education itself held by older generations.
"I say 'different' because some residents still fight the idea that their children should be more educated than the parents," he said.
"They subscribe to that old belief of 'if it was good enough for us, it should be good enough for you,'" Rosys explained.
However, the efforts of Catholic educators here are unlocking the joy of learning. Jessica Goble, a school secretary and mother of Brody, who is in the eighth grade, said that her son "never liked school a lot until he started attending here, and he has matured so much."
"He previously went to public school right across the street, and I still regret not letting him come here during his sixth-grade year (due to COVID), and letting him stay home," she said.
Rosys notes the difference of Catholic education is clear to the graduates in this area who were prepared for higher education.
"As for us, several alumni of the school who returned to teach here, all said that after starting college, they were able to do the course work that other non-alums could not," Rosys said. "They knew then that they had really learned something here.”
Together, the schools' gift of Catholic education is seeing a real benefit to the community. Their graduates are not abandoning Appalachia – they are enriching it.
Our Lady of the Mountains' Fr. Flanagan said, "People who graduated from here often come back, and we see them again as mature adults."