By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Bethlehem High School conferred diplomas Sunday to 68 graduates during commencement exercises at the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
It was the school’s 100th graduating class.
Principal Tom Hamilton said the class of 2012 “is a pretty remarkable” one. All 68 graduates are receiving scholarships for college. And the class of 2012 boasted six valedictorians — Chuck McMahan, Skyler Frye, Cole McDowell, Tori Walter, Barrett Greenwell and Beth Cecil finished their high school careers tied at the top of their class academically.
The school’s first high school graduates were three young women who received diplomas in 1913.
But the now-coed school, which is the only Catholic high school of the archdiocese outside of Louisville, is much older than that. School officials say they believe it’s the oldest continuously operating school in the state.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth opened the school, then called Bethlehem Academy, for primary grades in 1819. It was located just a block or so away from the school’s present location. It sits across Stephen Foster Avenue from The Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral.
Hamilton, said the name Bethlehem was chosen because it was to be the “birthplace” of the Sisters’ first branch house. It has transformed several times since it’s founding.
“In 1911, St. Joe Prep was founded by Xaverian Brothers (at St. Joseph) and they began educating the high school boys,” Hamilton noted. That year, Bethlehem began to educate high school girls in addition to the primary grades, he said.
The school began to focus entirely on high school girls in 1953 when St. Joseph parish opened a grade school. Fifteen years later, Bethlehem became a coed high school.
“In 1968, St. Joe Prep closed. The boys had no place to go for Catholic education,” said Hamilton. “The reason I know that is, I was in the eighth-grade (at St. Joe Prep) in 1968. And we had no place to go to high school. I graduated from Bardstown High School.”
Hamilton, who has led Bethlehem since 2008, not only attended Bardstown High School, but he has served as the school principal there, too.
He came to Bethlehem when the Class of 2012 began high school.
“They’re a pretty remarkable class,” said Hamilton. “Their ACT composite is 24.7. The ACT composite (at Bethlehem) has gone up every year since 2008. Every single kid in the class has won scholarship money of some kind or other,” he noted. “They’re also real service oriented.”
The students host an all-night dance marathon every year to raise money for charitable causes. And students knit caps for cancer patients, he said.
Olivia Alm, a member of the class of 2012 who is heading to Western Kentucky University, said students also are very involved in ministry at school and in their parishes.
“We are encouraged to participate in church — to be eucharistic ministers, altar servers and in the choir,” she noted.
Olivia and one of her childhood friends, Lindsey Rogers, said during an interview last Friday that they are excited to go to college, but they’ll miss the intimate family atmosphere of Bethlehem.
“I love that it’s small,” said Rogers who is attending St. Catharine College. “We know everyone and are friends with everyone in our school. I’m going to miss the attention we get here. If I need help, I know my teachers will help me.”
Sarah Carter, who is planning to attend Murray State University, said she’s filled with gratitude for her time at Bethlehem and the people she’s known there.
“Being so small (a school) we have so many opportunities to be together. Everybody can be themselves; you can talk to anybody about anything. It’s helped me figure out who I am as a person. You really get a sense of your morals and values” at Bethlehem, said Sarah, a member of St. Gregory Church.
“I’m having mixed emotions” about graduating, she added. “I’ve had an amazing experience at Bethlehem. I’m going to be sad. We’ve grown into a family. I’m really happy too, thinking about all the things we’ve experienced together. And I’m excited about the future.”
Hamilton is optimistic about Bethlehem’s future, noting that it’s operating close to capacity with 313 students. The building — which has been updated in recent years — is designed to have about 320 students, he said.
This year’s graduating class size is moderate, he noted. This year’s freshmen class is larger than has been usual in recent years with 98 students.
The school has made a point to keep pace with technology, Hamilton said. It has three computer labs — and at least one is packed with new iMacs — plus a bank of Apple laptops and iPads that the students may check out in the library. Students also are encouraged to bring their smart phones, tablets and other devices to school. A grant from the Catholic Education Foundation financed a project to connect the school wirelessly.
The school’s gym was renovated recently and the library will be remodeled soon, said Hamilton. The school also has a strategic plan that calls for more green space outdoors and includes plans to expand the campus a little in the future, said Hamilton.