St. Alexis turns 50 years old

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Half a century ago when the North Hills primarily was a farming community, the Rev. Francis Rodgers was directed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to create a new parish on Pine Creek Hill above McKnight Road and Route 19 in McCandless.

Father Rodgers named it St. Alexis after the patron saint of beggars and determined that he also would start a school that would offer a free Catholic education. Formed among 175 families from three parishes, St. Alexis attracted parishioners at the beginning of the population explosion in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs.

Father Rodgers purchased a tract of farmland on Old Perry Highway and began raising funds for a school. Sunday Mass was offered inside the long-gone Pine Valley Roller Skating Rink until the growing congregation’s church could be built. The farm’s chicken coop was renovated and converted into a chapel for daily masses. The church was finished in time for Christmas Eve Mass in 1962 and was dedicated on Aug. 11, 1963.

Once the church was built, the chicken coop became a library for the parish school, which housed grades 1 to 6 in three buildings. North Hills historian Joe Bullick, 81, of Pine, said Father Rodgers believed that a child’s faith could be established in the six years it took them to get through elementary school.

Father Rodgers retired in 1987 and died in 2003.

When Lois Titus, 62, of Shaler, was hired as a teacher in 1971, she was just out of college. Now she holds the honor of being the teacher who has been at St. Alexis the longest.

“When I first got hired, I was one of the few lay teachers there,” she recalled, noting that the coed Catholic school was run by the Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

Today, the only nun teaching at the pre-K through grade 8 school is Sister Jean Stoltz, and she’s a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden.

Mrs. Titus is first-grade teacher. She also has taught second grade, gym and music.

When she started, Mrs. Titus said she often had more than 40 students per class. As education costs began to rise and more lay teachers had to be hired instead of nuns, the school had to begin charging tuition.

As new churches were built, St. Alexis was one of the few that had a school. Students come from the North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland, Mars, Seneca Valley, Ambridge, Hampton and Avonworth school districts.

Principal James Correll began teaching at St. Alexis a few years ago and recently became its principal.

“I really like it here. The word everyone uses to describe this place is ‘family,’ ” he said, noting that he originally wanted to work in public education. “Now I don’t want another job. This school is so inviting, comforting, safe, and the kids are incredible. It’s really homey.”

On Saturday, the school will commemorate the past 50 years during its Annual Gala, Auction and Dinner in the Omni William Penn Hotel. The event raises money for school improvements. In 11 years, it has raised more than $700,000 for educational resources and upgrades to facilities, including a new roof, bathrooms, water fountains and paint.

There are currently 225 students enrolled, and Mr. Correll said that the number is growing.

“We’ve started registration for next year and many new families are coming in,” he said.

St. Alexis added pre-K classes several years ago and now employs 17 teachers. Class size averages about 17 students. In addition to the core curriculum, St. Alexis offers Spanish for grades K-8 and a variety of sports and music lessons.

Mr. Correll proudly spoke to the school's high academic standards.

“At least four of the top five graduating seniors at Vincentian this year are St. Alexis grads, and three of them have already been accepted to Notre Dame," he said.

Mrs. Titus said she is thrilled to be spending her days with a new generation.

“I’m now teaching the children of my former students,” she said. “It’s nice that they had good memories from when they attended this school, and now they’re sending their kids here.”

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:

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