A Catholic School Named for St. Patrick That’s Totally Free and Totally Faithful

Providence’s small college-prep institution accepts qualified students, regardless of financial need, and has ties to Bishop-elect James Ruggieri of Portland, Maine.

St. Patrick Academy offers a Christ-centered education in Providence, Rhode Island.

Four years ago, as she considered which high school to attend, Ashantty Huallanca was aiming for a Providence, Rhode Island, public school where she would study with her friends.

But her mother, Sonia Huallanca, encouraged Ashantty to consider St. Patrick Academy, a small Catholic high school not far from the family’s home that offered a college-preparatory education regardless of ability to pay tuition.

The single mother, originally from Peru, was raising three children and had heard from a friend that the academy could offer her daughter an educational path she wouldn’t have been able to afford elsewhere.

Ashantty, 17, followed her mother’s advice. At St. Patrick Academy, she has greatly benefited from more personalized learning.

As she prepares to graduate this spring with the 17 other students in her class to pursue a career in pediatric nursing, Ashantty has already been accepted by nine colleges and universities.

Ashantty said that in addition to receiving the academic grounding she needed to pursue a college degree, the academy has helped her grow in her connection to God, build better relationships with teachers and learn time management.

“In public school, I used to hate speaking up,” she said. “It was so scary for me to just go up to the teacher. At St. Patrick, I’ve learned if I don’t advocate for myself, I won’t get anywhere, so the teachers have helped me get comfortable with that, too.”

Having watched her daughter work purposefully from her first day at St. Patrick, Sonia Huallanca told the Register she believes in the academy’s education, its teachers and the values it teaches.

Part of a more-than-170-year-history of Catholic education at St. Patrick Church, in a historically majority-Catholic state, St. Patrick Academy is now a diverse, donor-supported, academically rigorous Catholic high school that doesn’t turn away students for inability to pay. Nearly all graduates go on to attend college. Adopting this model through an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Father James Ruggieri “re-founded” the school as an academy, with others from the school and parish, with the aim of a “new, affordable urban Catholic high school.” The academy now has 85 students and a teacher-student ratio of 1:5, according to the academy website. Now Bishop-elect Ruggieri, who served as pastor of St. Patrick Church for 21 years, will be installed as bishop of Portland, Maine, on May 7.

“We realized that more affordable Catholic secondary education was needed in our local Church,” he told the Register. “Catholic education forms the whole person, and we wanted our students to have the benefit of this formation.”

The academy is considered one of the parish’s several active ministries, which also include a food pantry, kitchen and food truck where some students help provide outreach to the homeless and others in need in Providence.

St. Patrick parish has supported a school in several locations, as separate boys’ and girls’ schools, a high school and an elementary school. Several religious communities, and at one time also the parish’s charismatic community, ran the school, according to the website.

Inspiration to form the academy came after the elementary school closed following the 2008-09 school year, due to financial and enrollment problems and as the Providence Diocese considered transforming the school into a regional diocesan middle school, Bishop-elect Ruggieri said. But he and school leaders received then-Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin’s conditional approval to reopen as the high school academy, he said.

The academy would be small because its building is small. It would transition from the existing school’s middle-school students, adding years as these students advanced until it became a full high school, Bishop-elect Ruggieri said. The academy’s first senior class graduated in 2014.

He added, “The creation of an affordable, accessible Catholic high school had no guarantee.” The bishop-elect and school leaders initially didn’t have a detailed development plan but sought to hire part-time teachers, utilizing volunteers. Fifteen years later, the academy’s mission and work continues to attract donors, the bishop-elect said.

The academy is now accredited and the only parish high school in the Providence Diocese, supported by St. Patrick Church, said the academy’s principal, E. Christopher Myron.

Some students belong to the parish, but many live in the Providence metropolitan area, as well as other surrounding communities.

Academic excellence and the faith are the cornerstones of a St. Patrick Academy education.(Photo: Courtesy of St. Patrick Academy)

According to the academy’s website, roughly 72% of the academy’s students are Catholic and about 73% are Hispanic. Around 20% are first-generation immigrants, including from Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Some of the students were recruited by Bishop-elect Ruggieri, but, increasingly, they’ve come through the academy’s admissions process, Myron said. “We’re getting the word out about the type of school it is and what we offer here.”

Academy students are willing to work hard, he said. “And they’re willing to take time to grow in new ways. We have a high bar. We want them to believe in themselves, to believe anything’s possible. They prove that by what they do each day.”

All students receive tuition assistance, while 53 of the 85 pay $1,000 or less of the academy’s $13,000 annual tuition, said Robin Tagliaferri, the school’s development director.

Students receive some tuition assistance from the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Providence, she said, but to help bridge the funding gap, during the 2022-23 school year, 100 individual donors and family foundations underwrote the full or partial cost of the annual tuition for students in need as part of the academy’s “Adopt a Student” program.

The academy creates opportunities for contact between students and donors, Tagliaferri said.

St. Patrick Church parishioners, comprising more than 700 households, are major donors and partners in the academy’s mission, also underwriting building maintenance and grounds costs, Myron said.

The academy also benefits from a matching grant from the North American Catholic Education Programming Foundation (NACEPF) a Johnston, Rhode Island-based nonprofit provider of high-speed broadband and educational resources.

In recent years, the academy has begun offering advanced placement (AP) college-level courses, honors classes, interscholastic sports and tutoring support. It also offers programs designed to develop communication, mentoring and advocacy skills.

Students are required to complete service hours, which some do through the parish’s myriad ministries.

The academy is located in the same building as the church, along with other parish ministries, including a food pantry and kitchen that provides meals called Mary’s House, according to Bishop-elect Ruggieri.

When an earlier parish church was condemned and the property sold in the mid-’80s, the parish built a new church inside its 1920s-era school building.

“The great thing about having everything under one roof, besides financial benefits, is the reality that our students get to share in parish life,” Bishop-elect Ruggieri said, noting the parish’s charism of hospitality.

“Many of our students are parishioners, and many of our students, parishioners and non-parishioners, are volunteers at our meal kitchen.”

Along with serving at Mary’s House or ministries such as religious special education, students have helped the bishop-elect serve about 350 hot meals per week from the parish’s food truck in Providence’s poorer neighborhoods.

“It’s unbelievable how the students will be hands on with the local community under Father’s watch, to just show how important it is to serve to those homeless,” said Mary Cipriano, a theology teacher who has taught at the school and academy for most of the past 42 years (as she taught at the elementary school that preceded the academy).

She said she has “also witnessed how many of our students have thrived and grown in this little school. We have brought students from parts of our small state to form a family.”

The academy and school have always been a family, Cipriano said. Because it’s small, students — including of different classes — interact with and are dependent on each other, she said. The academy “gives students opportunity to grow academically, socially and, above all, to grow spiritually,” she said, noting that they attend weekly Mass, adoration and annual class retreats. One former student is currently studying for the priesthood in the diocese, she said.

Bishop-elect Ruggieri will leave a legacy at the academy in part because of his role in establishing its mission, Tagliaferri said.

“The stories that we’re going to be able to tell as part of that legacy are going to be very powerful.”

Affirming that mission, Bishop-elect Ruggieri told the Register he hopes St. Patrick Academy will continue to “provide an authentically Catholic college-preparatory education to students regardless of need.” He added that he is “very confident that they will help the new pastor to lead the school forward.”

As students benefit from the academy’s educational opportunities, the entire academy family has also accomplished much, including feeding the poor and visiting shut-ins, Cipriano said.

“I believe God has placed within [the students] something special,” she said.

“It’s God’s school; it’s not our school,” she said.

“God has provided the means to keep the school going. How he does it, I don’t know. I believe God has a purpose for our school; and as long as we are faithful to that purpose, whatever it may be, that school is going to remain. It depends on us to follow God’s will.”

Ashantty Huallanca for one is grateful she has been given the opportunity to attend St. Patrick.

“Considering that I would be the first in my family to go to college, I wanted to attend a school that could help me achieve that goal,” she said.

“St. Patrick Academy was my best option because, with a small class size, it has been easier to speak up when I am struggling with something, and I can comfortably get one-on-one time with my teachers.”

Read more