Catholic school
St. Peter Claver students with Barry Williams (left), head coach and teacher Earl Brown (center) and assistant coach Robert Johnson (right). Courtesy photo

In a Cincinnati, Ohio, neighborhood that in 2006 had the highest crime rate in the city, 20 boys, grades K to 8, start their school days reciting prayers in Latin. There are crucifixes in the classrooms and the students study the classics and subjects taught in challenging ways. 

Barry Williams, headmaster at St. Peter Claver Latin School For Boys, is proud of them. 

“Our students are bright and hard working,” he said. “And we have parental involvement — we expect it. Parents want their children to be here because they want them to have a chance. They don’t want their boys to fall prey to what they see in the neighborhoods.” 

Priest’s vision

Over-the-Rhine was once an ethnic German neighborhood and is now the largest, most intact urban historic district in the country. In recent decades, it had a negative distinction for its high crime, and for its four days of rioting in 2001. 

Father Albert Lauer came to Over-the-Rhine in 1998 as pastor of Old St. Mary’s Church and had a vision that, given a good start, neighborhood boys could graduate from high school and attend college. He opened the school in 2001, naming it after St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), a Spanish Jesuit missionary who devoted his life to slaves who were brought to Colombia. 

Nearly half the students were expelled in that first year, and in 2002, Father Lauer died of cancer. But the school found a place in a community desperate for hope. Donors now pick up the $5,000 tuitions that parents can’t afford and also contribute $260,000 of the more than $333,000 in the current budget. 

For many things, they make do. There is no gym in the school that was once a Catholic school administration building. So they play basketball in the basement of the nearby Salvation Army. There’s no kitchen, so parents, neighbors and parishioners bring lunches. 

Williams, a longtime board member and volunteer tutor and fundraiser, became headmaster in 2011. As a retired businessman educated in Catholic schools and university, he knows the importance of teaching virtue and morality, and of developing spirituality with intellect. 

Students are challenged to memorize and think logically. They exercise their minds with dates and facts, and in math, they learn to solve problems without calculators. 

“We teach them poetry and moral lessons and to dig into facts, state your ground on something and construct valid arguments, not just emotional arguments,” Williams said. “We give them a classical education where they can learn to communicate well on every subject.” 

Feeding mind and soul

Field trips with donated tickets take students to theater, museums and symphonies that expose them to something beyond “music coming out of a jacked-up car with windows down and speakers blaring,” Williams said. “They learn that there is beautiful music at Music City Hall, and that there are many places and wonderful things to see and do.” 

The neighborhood is changing. Redevelopment is bringing the arts and tourism to Over-the-Rhine, pushing the impoverished residents to different neighborhoods. Parents are willing to send their sons to school farther away anyway, and they are seeing the boys going on to good high schools. 

“The problems today are unreal, especially in the inner city,” Williams said. “Young boys are going the wrong way and are seeing things that no kid should experience. It’s pretty much over by the time they are 12 or 13 if they are not making the right decisions.” 

So at St. Peter Claver Latin School for Boys, Williams and the teachers feed their minds and souls. 

“We do as much as we can,” Williams said, “and let the Lord take care of the rest.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.