By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Just a couple hundred yards from Tom Hamilton’s office sits the original Bethlehem cabin, where Sisters of Charity of Nazareth educated students of what is now Bethlehem High School.
A lot has changed in the last two centuries, but not Bethlehem’s commitment to forming students in the Catholic faith. Providing a solid education is still the norm at the school, said Hamilton, who has served as principal of Bethlehem for 11 years.
Next year, the Nelson County high school will celebrate its bicentennial. In preparation for the event, school officials have launched a capital campaign to honor the school’s legacy and prepare for its future.
The campaign —“200 Years and Beyond: Building Bethlehem Everywhere” — is a three-pronged approach intended “to bring the school into its third century,” said Hamilton.
“We’ve been around a long time. We started in a one-room school house 200 years ago with three Sisters of Charity who served as our first teachers and founders,” he said. “The Sisters of Charity have been wonderful. They have a strong tradition and the one thing they left with us is the philosophy ‘you’ve got to change, understand what the future is and adapt to the future.’ ”
“That’s exactly the way we feel. For us, we have to maintain that to be a school that is comprehensive and cost effective. And, we’ve done that,” he said.
Bethlehem’s capital campaign has three priorities: students, faculty and athletics.
First, the school wants to increase tuition assistance it provides to families. About 30 percent of the school’s 270 students receive some type of tuition assistance currently.
Second, the project calls for increased salaries for faculty. Teachers at Bethlehem earn about 25 percent less than teachers elsewhere in Kentucky, Hamilton said.
And third, a sports complex will be built in an effort to centralize the school’s athletic programs. About 84 percent of the student body participates in athletics, according to statistics on Bethlehem’s website. Because of a lack of space, the school has to rent fields. The archery team must practice in the cafeteria. And, the tennis, cross country and track teachers have no home facilities.
The cost of these priorities comes to $8 million, and the school has already amassed about half of the sum, Hamilton said.
“Each phase contributes to all three objectives of the campaign. When raising money, it’s not just about the athletics; really this whole thing is about Bethlehem,” Hamilton said.
The initial phase, which has begun, carries a $4 million price tag and provides for each of the campaign’s initiatives, in part. Half a million dollars went to the school’s endowment to provide additional tuition assistance and increase salaries for educators. The remaining $3.5 million goes to the initial construction of the athletic complex.
A ground breaking ceremony for the Bethlehem High School Athletic Complex took place Aug. 19. The first phase of the complex will house a football/soccer field with artificial turf, an eight-lane, rubberized track (as well as locations for discus, shot put, pole vault, high jump, long jump and triple jump), softball field, restrooms, a utility building and a gravel parking lot.
It will be located on a 40-acre lot off Highway 245 in Bardstown. Its official address is 249 Bethlehem Way.
“It’s our plan and wish to have the kids on fields playing at the new complex next school year. That’s a bold, ambitious plan. But, it’s got to stop raining,” Hamilton said with a laugh.
At the ground-breaking ceremony, Gilbert Brown, a 1983 graduate of Bethlehem and the capital campaign chair, said the complex “will allow Bethlehem High School and students to do things that we have never been able to do before.”
Phase two of the campaign will add a field house, tennis courts and an indoor practice facility that will house the archery program. The third phase includes plans for a baseball field and any remaining minor items.
The second and third phases will also see money added to the endowment. The school will add $500,000 for tuition assistance and faculty salary initiatives (split equally) during the second phase and will repeat that contribution in the third phase.
Hamilton said the goal of the campaign is to position the school in a “strong stance” for the future.
“We plan on being here for at least 200 more years. We want to create the opportunity for families of this community, of this region to attend a Catholic high school,” he said.
Bethlehem students come from seven counties surrounding Bardstown. And, there are three daily bus routes that travel to the Elizabethtown, Lebanon Junction and Springfield areas.
“For us to be that viable, strong Catholic high school, we need that regional support. This campaign provides us with capabilities to address those needs of the next generation,” he said.
Hamilton said that Bethlehem has a unique gift for nurturing vocations.
That fact is not by accident, Hamilton said, noting that numerous men and women have gone on to the priesthood or religious life after graduating from Bethlehem.
Bishop Mark Spalding of Nashville was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Louisville in 1991. He was named Bishop of Nashville in 2017 and was installed in 2018. He is a 1983 graduate of Bethlehem.
Additionally, four men currently in formation for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Louisville are recent graduates of Bethlehem. They are: Deacon Tony Cecil, class of 2011; Deacon Kirby Rust, class of 2011; Eddie Jarboe, class of 2011; and Cole McDowell, class of 2012.
“We have a great opportunity to formulate the Catholic faith in these young men,” he said.