The Catholic Education Foundation announced Sept. 20 plans for a new $10 million tuition assistance endowment fund.
John and Sarah Lechleiter of Indianapolis, who attended Archdiocese of Louisville Catholic schools, will fund the endowment over several years beginning in 2024.
Half of the funds will go to the CEF and the other half will be earmarked exclusively for St. James School in the Highlands, where Lechleiter’s father, John Howard Lechleiter, attended grade school.
“Our father graduated from St. James in the eighth grade in 1942. We lost our dad way too soon; he was only 67 when he passed away, but all of us can remember how he felt about St. James. The education made him who he was,” Lechleiter said in a recent interview about the gift.
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, vice chair of the CEF board, gave thanks for the gift in a press release.
“This is a major breakthrough in the foundation’s strategic plan to expand its impact and perpetuate its mission! How blessed are we to have such generous benefactors as Sarah and John — both Louisville Catholic school graduates who share their blessings with others.”
John Lechleiter said their philanthropy is rooted in their faith, noting the adage, “To whom much is given, much will be expected.”
“Sarah and I believe Catholic education is as important now as ever. We want to give people an opportunity that our parents gave to us in a different era and set of circumstances. Philanthropy is essential if we’re going to succeed in that,” he said.
His brother, Rich Lechleiter, one of nine Lechleiter siblings, feels the same way, serving as president of the Catholic Education Foundation since 2014.
“This gift is transformative — it changes everything for us and more importantly for our kids,” said Rich Lechleiter. “It gives us so much confidence for the future.”
He noted that the CEF’s slogan, “The answer is, ‘Yes,’ ” serves as a commitment to provide tuition assistance to every student who demonstrates need. In the years since adopting this slogan, the CEF and its partners have been so successful that it “has really become a mandate,” he said.
This year, the CEF and its partners, including the Archdiocese of Louisville, provided $8 million in tuition assistance to 3,700 students.
“Our endowment today is right around $32 million. This (gift) will add $10 million, so it will grow by a third. … If that (new) fund generates $500,000 in the aggregate, that’s 475 more kids” the CEF can assist, he said.
Half of that will assist students from across the archdiocese while the other half will assist St. James students specifically. This school year, 90 percent of St. James students received tuition assistance.
John Lechleiter noted that the enrollment at St. James has shifted over the years, from primarily serving families living in the Highlands, to drawing kids from West Louisville.
“St. James today is serving rather a new and unique mission, serving kids who live outside the parish boundary who don’t have access to Catholic education,” he said. “It’s serving underserved communities in Louisville and I think that’s really important to give that broad spectrum of kids a Catholic education.
“We want to see St. James grow and expand on that mission in the future,” he said. “We’ve been encouraged by the good work that’s going on there.”
Gregg Boehmer, principal of St. James School, said news of the gift left him “overwhelmed and thankful.”
“This really does change the narrative for the school, as we are moving away from the school that was almost going to close to a school that has the wherewithal to be vibrant, in perpetuity,” said Boehmer.
“The school has, I think, a very important dual mission with serving the West Louisville community — providing an education and opportunity for students on the west side, to potentially break the chain of poverty in their family. And for children in the Highlands and nearby neighborhoods to have that small class size and individual attention they need to be successful in the classroom.”
Currently 106 students are enrolled at St. James in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Boehmer said the school has the capacity to serve up to about 150 students, while keeping the class sizes to about 15 students.
The CEF’s slogan, “The answer is yes,” speaks to St. James’ mission, too, he said.
“No matter where a family may come from, if they want a Catholic education for their child, St. James has the opportunity to provide that and prepare them for a fine Catholic high school as well.”
He noted that the school’s Legacy Group, a combination of alumni and friends of the school, have been making big improvements, helping St. James renovate its gym, auditorium and restrooms and update technology.
John Lechleiter said he hopes more people will follow that example.
“We’ve been really inspired by the generosity of the people in Louisville and the archdiocese. Not just people who are Catholic, but people who recognize the value of Catholic education,” he said, noting that he and his wife have been supporting Catholic education for decades. “We hope our gift will inspire other people. We usually try to keep our gifts under the radar, but we hope this will inspire people to come forward and make a gift of whatever size.”
Catholic schools, he added, are “really the transmitters of our Catholic faith and faith traditions.” “We should really be aspiring to open new schools,” he said. “It’s an important element of our Catholic faith, not just a source of education.”