DeLaSalle High School
With Faith, vision, and determination (and a generous gift of $25,000 seed money), Archbishop John Ireland broke ground 100 years ago for a Catholic secondary school in Minneapolis. Ireland had one stipulation for the new school on Nicollet Island: that it be run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, more commonly known as the Christian Brothers. A century later, Ireland’s vision and the Lasallian vision of the earliest Brothers sustains DeLaSalle High School and all members of its community.
It took only a few months after groundbreaking to prepare the DeLaSalle Institute building for occupancy. Fifty boys joined three teaching Christian Brothers in the new school in October 1900. The number of pupils rapidly expanded, and by spring, a fourth Brother had arrived to handle the “overcrowding.” By 1907, an addition had been added to the original building, and in 1914, Archbishop Ireland purchased the adjoining King property to provide space for eventual expansion. Enrollment stood at 352 boys.
In those days, DeLaSalle was a commercial school. Through the work of Brother Heraclian, the first graduating class, 13 members strong in 1903, all received positions with the leading business firms of Minneapolis before graduating.
By 1920, parents were calling for a high school that was primarily college preparatory. So Archbishop Dowling, Ireland’s successor, went to all Minneapolis parishes to raise the $200,000 needed to build a new high school on the former King property, adjacent to the existing commercial building. Construction began in May 1922, and within a year, the new DeLaSalle High School building (today known as the “B” building) had opened.
Within six years, the college preparatory DeLaSalle had been accredited by both the University of Minnesota and the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. (Seventy-one years later, the school is still accredited by North Central.) By the 1930s, the school had earned a statewide reputation for superior education of young men. During this time, the Islanders also earned athletic renown, under legendary coach George Roberts. In 1931, De captured the National Catholic High School Basketball Championship.
Throughout the Great Depression and war years, DeLaSalle and the Christian Brothers remained true to the Lasallian mission of educating young people, regardless of socio-economic or personal background. A true story is told of a young man whose father lost his plumbing business in the Depression. His mother came to see Brother Cassian, the director, to withdraw her son, because the family could not afford the $80.00 tuition charged that year. “How much can you afford?” asked Brother Cassian. “If we sacrifice, we could possibly come up with half of that,” replied the mother. “Then that is what you will pay,” replied the Brother Director.
By the summer of 1950, the Christian Brothers moved into their new residence facing Grove Street. To this day, the Brothers live in the community on the top two floors of the building; the first floor houses the school’s Development, Alumni and Admissions offices. After World War II, enrollment doubled to over 800 by 1952. Because the buildings could no longer adequately support the growing enrollment, De acquired a public school building in south Minneapolis—the Wentworth building—and taught all ninth graders there until 1959.
DeLaSalle dominated Minnesota high school athletics in the 1950s. State championships in all sports were common. No opponent could even score a point against the undefeated 1953 football champs. The 1959 baseball team won a state championship, then reformed as a summer American Legion team and won a national championship. A new legend, Dick Reinhart, coached six state championship teams in basketball.
Post-war baby boomers were filling Catholic elementary schools beyond capacity, and De was regularly forced to turn away hundreds of applicants. To help alleviate this crunch, a new addition opened in September 1959 (today still known at the “A” building). All four grades could again be educated on Nicollet Island
Peak enrollment was 1651 boys in 1964. Because new Catholic high schools were built in surrounding areas and there was a rather sudden decline of post-baby-boom students in Minneapolis elementary schools, DeLaSalle’s enrollment dipped below 1000 before the end of the decade. In February 1971, the original commercial building burned to the ground. The area of the original building, on Grove and West Island, is now called Founder’s Park, and a statue of St. John Baptist de La Salle stands in this park.
Also in 1971, the diocese closed the all-girl St. Anthony of Padua High School in northeast Minneapolis, and DeLaSalle opened its enrollment to girls to help accommodate family’s needs. Several other single-sex diocesan high schools became co-ed during this same time period. Many grade schools either closed or merged during this time, as well. By 1975, enrollment at the now co-educational DeLaSalle had dipped to 475 students, a decline of nearly 1200 students in 12 years.
Many believed during the 1970s that DeLaSalle would also close. Programs were cut, deficits were building, and families were either moving or sending their children out of the city. Due to the great efforts of successive chief administrators, Brother Cyril Litecky and Brother Basil Rothweiler, the school launched an annual giving campaign with its loyal base of alumni and friends, to help meet the costs of operating the school and to provide financial assistance to those students in need.
One of the first donors was the alumnus from the 1930s whose family couldn’t afford $80.00 yearly tuition. Over the next 25 years, he made up the difference—and then some. The support from thousands of De’s alumni and friends for current students has been a model for many private schools nationwide.
Through the 1980s, De began adding back programs that had been cut through the years, while re-focusing the community on regular prayer and service and the curriculum on college preparation. Enrollment rose and then fell with demographic shifts, reaching a 70-year low of 306 students in 1990-91.
A 1955 alumnus of De, Brother Michael Collins, returned as school president in 1991. It’s no mere coincidence that during his tenure, the school has prospered: Enrollment has climbed back to over 600 students; the operating budget has been balanced for ten consecutive years; over $7.0 million has been invested in buildings and grounds; and over $14 million total has been raised through annual giving and two capital campaigns, much of this for student scholarships and financial aid, some for building renovation, some for increasing faculty salaries.
Students from all parts of the Twin Cities (over 100 grade schools) are again coming to De. Over 400 applications were received for 200 places in the ninth grade in the past year. Over 90 percent of De’s annually are matriculating to colleges across the country. In athletics and fine arts competition, the school has won six state team and 13 state individual championships during the past decade. There may not be a better time—among the many wonderful decades—in DeLaSalle’s history.
DeLaSalle thrives as it begins its second century at the heart of the most important city in the Upper Midwest. It’s amazing what a little Faith, vision, and determination (not to mention generous and gratifying support from others) can accomplish.
St. John Baptist de La Salle … pray for us!