The first thing one notices when entering Santa Luisa School is the massive, solid metal fencing and doors that shield it from one of the roughest neighborhoods of San Salvador, El Salvador. Once those doors close, the chatter of the marketplace and the blaring car horns and police sirens are replaced by the voices of children playing during gym class or shoes shuffling from class to class.
For the more than 500 boys and girls — mostly from poor or destitute families — who get a K-9 education at Santa Luisa, the school is an oasis from a city suffocating from drugs, gangs and violence. For many students, Santa Luisa represents their best chance to break out of the cycle of poverty that surrounds them daily.
Santa Luisa is beginning its 76th year and would not have reached its milestone 75th year without the aid of a group of alumni from the University of Scranton (Pa.). Led by Jesuit Father Brendan Lally, who now serves as a spiritual director at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, the non-profit Salvadoran Children of the Poor Education Foundation (SCOPE) has helped Santa Luisa meet its annual budget and supply basic needs for the past decade.
SCOPE is the product of two immersion programs Fr. Lally steered over two decades at the University of Scranton. The first, International Service Program, began in 1987 and takes students and alumni to two homes for street children in Mexico City for six weeks of the summer. Its success spawned a second program, Bridges to El Salvador, formed after Fr. Lally’s heart was moved by the Catholic witness of the people there.
A visit to Santa Luisa School has always been part of the Bridges itinerary. Lally has taken groups of students, professors, university staff, fellow priests, seminarians and alumni through the streets of San Salvador, including to the martyrdom sites of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980), the six Jesuits gunned down at the University of Central America (1989) and the three American nuns and church worker who were kidnapped, raped and shot in December 1980.
“I wanted (pilgrims) to meet the people and to discover the reality of their lives, to experience their faith, to listen to their stories and to let them know that their sisters and brothers in faith from the U.S. cared about them and were united with them,” he said. “We were also seeking our own conversion, so that we could discover the Gospel alive amid the materially poor — the gospel that Archbishop Romero died for, the gospel that could change our own lives and attitudes.”
Founded in 1935 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Santa Luisa currently has a staff of 23 lay teachers and four Sisters of Charity. Lally said that he has great admiration for the staff’s passion to be both educators and positive role models for the students.
“Santa Luisa caught my imagination because it was doing something concrete to make a difference in the lives of those children each year. It was being led by heroic and generous nuns and dedicated lay teachers. It was giving the children one gift that so many of us take for granted — opportunity,” Fr. Lally said. “This was not lost on the children. They knew they were getting an opportunity to change their lives and hopefully not have to fall back into the unemployment and poverty of their families. While there are no guarantees regarding their futures, this is the best possible gateway to a better life.”
One of the school’s former students, Maria Menjivar, now works as an accountant in Maryland. She attended Santa Luisa from 1977-82, which overlaps with the beginning of the bloody El Salvador civil war from 1980-92 that claimed the lives of an estimated 75,000 people — including Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass. She recalled how it was common for armies from both sides to try to recruit children at schools, so the nuns would funnel the children to a hiding place in a nearby church until the soldiers left. Her family would emigrate to the United States in 1986 to escape the bloodshed.
Three decades after she left Santa Luisa, Menjivar fondly recalls her time there as one where she received an excellent education and was formed solidly in her faith. While a student there, she received the sacrament of confirmation from Archbishop Romero. Menjivar said Santa Luisa was where she developed strong senses of discipline and responsibility.
“Santa Luisa was very Catholic. The values are there,” she said. “When I attended, the nuns were very strict and very good teachers.”
Menjivar said that admission to Santa Luisa was in great demand because it charged a small tuition and yet offered the opportunity to get the education of a more expensive private school. She remembers beginning each day lined up outside with other students for prayer and a uniform check. Not much has changed three decades later, as students still wear uniforms and prayer is still a big part of the daily life there.
Teacher Norma Peña has rotated between grammar, literature and science at Santa Luisa since 2002. She said the teachers are focused on full formation of the person, not just education in various subjects.
“One of the challenges is trying to teach them that violence will be outside and maybe for a long time. We’re trying to interest each kid and teach them how to say ‘no’ when they need to say ‘no,’” she said. “We want to make an impression on how to be a better person and prepare them for high school.”
Peña said that, among the spiritual activities at Santa Luisa are daily prayer, monthly Mass and the celebration of the feast days of Santa Luisa and St. Vincent de Paul.
She added that the school’s many needs include a science lab and updated computers.
“Right now, we do everything verbally and don’t do any experiments,” she said.
Santa Luisa runs a deficit each year in the thousands of U.S. dollars, and the board members of SCOPE, along with dedicated volunteers, try to raise the difference. The nuns at Santa Luisa also subsidize the school by running a shop that makes Communion hosts for local parishes.
Even though parents of Santa Luisa students are required to pay as much tuition as they can (a full year is about $50 U.S. per student), the nuns at Santa Luisa also do not want to turn any children away. So, SCOPE is helping the staff create a sustainable business model and is also building a principal fund with the hope that the interest will be enough to subsidize whatever the school cannot collect. Because everyone involved in SCOPE volunteers their time, 100 percent of donations go to Santa Luisa. SCOPE’s overhead expenses are covered by its members.
“You can educate an entire school for less than it costs to send one U.S. college student to a private school for one year,” said SCOPE president Matthew O’Rourke of Denver.
In his trips to El Salvador over the years, O’Rourke said he has experienced a country decimated by unemployment and broken families due to emigration to the United States and other countries to find work. Many of these families send children to Santa Luisa.
“This is the pilgrim church, the church marginalized, the aching wounds of Christ, his Body scourged and his poor marginalized,” he said. “(SCOPE) is a work of mercy.”
Fr. Lally calls Santa Luisa a “city of joy in the midst of the poverty and the discouragement it brings. It is a school for the poorest of the poor, and its mission is aimed at the heart of the problems in society.”
“If the life of one innocent child is saved from the filth and death of the streets, it will all have been worthwhile,” he added. “But we have the opportunity here to give over 500 children each year the gift of life and hope and joy. Each of us have had that gift as a given in our lives. I think it is time now to pass that gift on.”
To learn more about SCOPE, go to www.scopefoundation.com.