CANBY, Minn.—Five years ago, a young priest, Father Paul van de Crommert, arrived in this little town on the prairie's edge for his first pastorate. He was determined not to allow St. Peter's Grade School to die.

Defying all odds, the school and parish are now flourishing. For Father van de Crommert, a Catholic school is the heart of a parish, giving it cause and purpose. He's convinced that instructing children well in the faith is the best way to re-evangelize parents.

In Minnesota, location is judged by driving distance from the Twin Cities. Canby, near the South Dakota line, is in the hinterlands, four hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul. The number of inhabitants— 1,800—has dropped by 300 since its last census.

As the region's cash crop farms grow ever larger, the population slowly continues to age and recede. For decades now, young people from Canby and elsewhere in rural Minnesota have gone to the Twin Cities to find work.

Canby is heavily Scandinavian Lutheran (the main street is “St. Olaf Avenue” and Canby's Lutheran Church is large enough to seat 700). Few places, it would seem, provide a more unlikely setting for a thriving Catholic school.

As a youth, Father van de Crommert didn't attend Catholic school because his parish didn't have one. He later went to a minor seminary (now closed) and on to St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and then to St. Paul Seminary. In 1988 he was ordained for the Diocese of New Ulm.

Father van de Crommert has gained a reputation around the diocese for being “thoroughly orthodox.” When he arrived in 1990, not many gave St. Peter's School much of a chance. Enrollment had sunk to about 85, and the parish was running a sizable deficit. St. Peter's, like several other Catholic schools in the diocese, seemed to be headed for closure.

The new pastor immediately immersed himself in the daily routine of the school. He became the school's superintendent, celebrated weekly Mass for students, began teaching religion, ate lunch daily in the cafeteria, and involved himself in every school-related activity. And he continues to do so.

“It's healthy for priests to have a lot of work to do,” he says. “I've been in rural rectories in parishes without schools, and it's so quiet that everyday seems like a Sunday afternoon. Priests are subject to sin and temptation like everyone else, and the worst situation is when we have too much idle time on our hands.”

St. Peter's School took a great step forward four years ago when Father van de Crommert recruited Sister Adelyn, SSND. The 63-year-old nun had been director of religious education for a parish in Munich, N.D. The duo was convinced that the only way for the school to survive was by establishing strict codes of discipline and being authentically Catholic.

Enrollment has risen to 100, with students coming from St. Peter's and three neighboring parishes. Some students travel as far as 25 miles. A30-passenger bus was bought this year to help transport students.

As a parish priest, Father van de Crommert works as hard with his parishioners as he does with his students. He puts a great deal of preparatory work into his preaching because he's convinced it's his best opportunity to evangelize people and do some real “continuing-ed.”

“What people need,” he says, “is basic Catholicism, instruction in the simplest elements of the Faith, and to hear about the saints and the sacraments in very understandable language.”

They also need to see a priest who is fully committed to his vocation, he believes. In a small town like Canby, people notice when the Catholic pastor doesn't skip town every chance he gets, but instead tends not only to sacramental and educational work, but also to manual labor on the parish grounds.

After more than five years, Father van de Crommert says it's getting easier. He isn't criticized like he was his first couple of years. “It's hard to pull in the reins. It is so easy as a priest to let everyone do whatever they want and say everything is great. I think so often of that passage of Scripture in which Isaiah writes: ‘We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way.’” Catholics sometimes come from all over to attend Mass at St. Peter's where, they tell Father van de Crommert, “It really feels like you've gone to Church.”

Patrick Slattery is based in Wisconsin.