Parish turns pill bottles into tuition


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

WASHINGTON — Father Bernie Weir wanted to make tuition more affordable at St. James Catholic School in Washington. He found a cure in an empty pill bottle. Parishioners, teachers and students spent one month filling pill bottles with coins to add to the parish’s St. James School Scholarship fund.

Fr. Bernie Weir
Zoey Dennler submits a pill bottle full of coins while Michael Fritz, Brad Ward and Joseph Fritz pick up an empty bottle to fill as part of St. James Parish in Washington’s scholarship fund drive.

“Financially, Catholic schools can be very expensive, so we need to make sure we’re doing what we can so it can be accessible to anyone who wants to attend,” said the pastor of St. James Parish. Last year, a one-time donation allowed the parish to offer a scholarship to all students in need. Fr. Weir hoped a successful fundraiser would help the parish maintain that level of support to the school.

Making Catholic school accessible is essential, especially in smaller communities like Washington (population about 7,000), the pastor said. “The trend is for smaller schools to struggle with the number of students and finances.” Many small-town Catholic schools closed in the 1970s, he noted. “Cities also struggle, but they have a larger base to draw from.” About 100 students attend St. James Catholic School.


The janitor at Fr. Weir’s previous parish, St. Mary of the Visitation in Ottumwa, inspired the fundraising idea. Janitor Ed Ruddy would give his grandchildren $10 worth of quarters in pill bottles each Christmas. Fr. Weir took this concept and turned it into a parish fundraiser for scholarship funds.

Fr. Weir and other parishioners donated pill bottles — empty and with labels removed — and parishioner Jennifer Altenhofen adorned them with fabric to make them “more festive,” he said.

The Scholarship Enhancement Program kicked off in mid-April. Initially, Fr. Weir hoped the fundraiser would bring in about $1,000. The final tally in mid-May was about $1,600.

Principal Chet Wisniewski said he was not shocked that donors exceeded the goal by $600. “The parish has always supported St. James School. … Students brought in quarters, too. This showed me that they really love it here and that they really care about their Catholic education.”

Parish Secretary Genoveva Diaz has a fourth-grader at St. James School and another who attended and is now in middle school. As a scholarship recipient, she said, “It’s amazing how the fundraiser turned out. … It’s a really nice way to help families that want to send kids here and might be struggling economically.”

Fr. Weir anticipates more funds will come in throughout the summer and fall. “The fundraiser was received very well. It drew lots of attention to the scholarship program. We had lots of questions about it: how it works, how you give to it, that kind of thing.” He plans to do the pill bottle fundraiser again next spring.

The pastor said he hopes to keep Catholic education alive and well in Washington for years to come. “We want everyone to at least consider it and not think they can’t afford it without at least seeing what aid is available.”

St. James scholarships

Elementary school tuition at the pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade St. James Catholic School is $2,200 a year for parishioners and $2,880 a year for non-parishioners. Preschool tuition is a little less. School Tuition Organization of Southeast Iowa offers tuition assistance based on income but Mary Ward, the school’s business director, said this does not fill the need for all families. “Some families don’t qualify, and other families need something to fill the gap,” she said.

Scholarships are based on a number of criteria including family size, extenuating circumstances and volunteerism. Income level is considered, but not as a disqualifying factor.

“The main question we ask is, ‘what is the reason you want your child to attend St. James,’” explained Ward.

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