Months after the final class in the 131-year history of a boys military school graduated, its north Salina campus got new life Thursday when the merger of Saint Francis Ministries and St. John’s Military School was announced.
“The mantra of St. John’s continues, just as a subsidiary of Saint Francis. There really is no better partner,” said Col. William Clark, SJMS president. “This is a celebration, much like a phoenix rising from adversity.”
The announcement was made Thursday on the campus just beyond the north end of Santa Fe Avenue, where the Episcopal Church opened the military school in 1887.
The campus name has been changed to St. John’s Ministries and School, and like SJMS, the goal is to remain a pillar of north Salina, aimed at helping people, particularly youths.
“The intent is to help lift up these young lives and have an expanded community,” said Father Bobby Smith. "Initially, in terms of programmatics, we plan to work with the business and educational community, and others, to develop what we’d call a career-technical program, so that we can partner with the business community to help prepare young people for meaningful and dignified work here in Salina."
An Episcopal priest, Smith serves as dean, president and CEO of Salina-based Saint Francis Ministries.
Specifics are still developing, he said, but Linger Hall, the westernmost building that faces Ninth Street, will be re-purposed to house St. John’s Military School Historical Museum, preserving the school’s memory and artifacts.
“I am very pleased that St. John’s and Saint Francis will be able to use all the resources that we built, to continue to serve youth and families,” said Dale Browning, an SJMS alumnus from Denver, former president, counselor, teacher and longtime board of trustees member. A bronze bust in his likeness is displayed in the campus entryway, with other St. John’s dignitaries.
“I have the highest regard for Saint Francis, its mission and its management,” Browning said.
Thursday’s news conference ended months of speculation on the future of the Salina campus that was home to the boys’ military school for 131 years.
The boarding school graduated its final class May 11, after years of litigation — or costly efforts to avoid it — nearly drained the school’s endowment. The SJMS board of trustees released their intentions to close the school on Feb. 6.
Dozens of teachers and staff had to find new jobs, and underclassmen found another place to complete their primary and secondary educations.
The “biggest share” of the SJMS cadets went to military schools in San Diego, Atlanta and Missouri, said Clark, who is planning trips to visit them.
“They seem to be doing well,” he said. “We still care about them and want to make sure they’re OK.”
The seven remaining St. John’s employees, plus Clark, have been offered jobs with Saint Francis, Smith said.
Clark confirmed earlier this week that he has accepted the position of chief of staff of Saint Francis.
“The other seven will either continue supporting the campus specifically, or be invited in to help with aspects of Saint Francis’s overall work,” Smith said.
Current St. John’s trustees and other community members will continue to be engaged in the campus.
Father Smith likes the word “partnership.”
“This is really based on how two historically Episcopal organizations can work together in a common mission,” he said.
SJMS trustees clamored in the spring to find a new use for the 11 buildings, with six homes and a duplex. Included on the nearly 40 acres of land is a gymnasium, a football field, paintball course and a fitness trail.
“Once the decision was made to close, the board outlined the way forward for the campus,” he said.
It includes four criteria: “Ensure the campus still helps youth and families; preserve the antiquity of SJMS’s 131 years; make sure that the campus remains an integral part of the Salina community; and make sure that everything is done properly and legally.”
“That shepherds the way forward,” Clark said. “The board looked at different options.”
When Saint Francis was invited during the spring by the St. John’s board and its leadership to join in a conversation, Father Smith said, this week’s announcement began to take shape.
“I think, collectively, light bulbs started to go off. These talks have been ongoing for six months,” Smith said. “We were honored to start the conversation. Over the course of time, we all started to see the collective impact, the benefits (a merger) could have to both organizations and to the community.”
St. John’s board members were enthused.
“This is a fantastic partnership. The synergies between St. John’s and Saint Francis Ministries are incredible,” said Rob Exline, owner and CEO of Exline, Inc., of Salina, who has been an SJMS trustee for seven years. “I am very excited about what the future will hold with this arrangement.
"Salina is going to benefit from this new relationship. It’s really gonna establish a new life on the north end of Santa Fe.”
The challenge was to continue making a difference, said Tom Pestinger, 12 years a trustee. The retired Salina businessman grew up near the campus.
“It’s all about what we can do to best serve the youth today,” he said. “I had several friends who went to Saint Francis. They’re all about helping people get back on the right track. I think it’s gonna be a great fit.”
The meshing of two Episcopal organizations was a great idea to Salina banker Larry Britegam. A former St. John’s cadet who attended the school in his eighth and ninth grade years, he has served on the board of trustees more than 30 years.
“In all my wildest dreams I never would have anticipated that we would be where we are today, with a solution for the St. John’s campus,” Britegam said. “It’s fair to say that their organization and our organization have a very similar mission. We want to help kids and we wants to help people have a better life.”
Currently operating in four buildings — two rented, two owned — within Salina’s city limits, Saint Francis Ministries can immerse its team in one place over time, said Father Smith.
The move will heighten the 75-year-old faith-based nonprofit’s ability to serve Salina, north-central Kansas and the state, he said. Saint Francis also operates in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Central America. Satellite offices are in Chicago, Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C.
“It will immediately enhance how we help children and families in Kansas,” Smith said. “We will be able to expand services and build community partnerships in a way that have not been possible before, working with local business and education communities.”
The news was embraced by the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce, wrote Eric Brown, president and CEO, in a prepared statement: “The importance of Saint Francis Ministries and St. John’s Military School’s leadership coming together in a short amount of time to fill a void in North Salina, shouldn’t be understated."
Saint Francis is a growing organization, serving more youths than ever, Brown said, and that’s impressive.
“Having a centralized campus, like what St. John’s Military School offers, will not only help the organization and the youth and families they serve, but the community of Salina as a whole as well,” Brown wrote. “The economic impact of St. John’s Military School was significant and that loss could have been compounded if that facility sat dark for an extended period of time.”
Saint Francis’s consolidation in Salina will not affect services provided at the Salina West campus, which is roughly 7 miles west of the city.
It’s where 42 children receive support for psychiatric needs. Another 16 are in two residential facilities, where they live and go to school.
Salina West represents a relatively tiny portion of Saint Francis services, Smith said, calling it less than a half of 1% of the operation.
“It’s a very important piece of our system of care,” he said. “But these kids have gone through horrific situations and the traumas are all but unimaginable. They deserve a safe place to live and deal with their traumas. This merger will have no affect on what goes on at Salina West.”
The migration in town will create a “campus community,” Smith said.
“Right now, we’re fragmented in how we harness the energies of hundreds of people who are committed deeply to the care and concern of families,” he said. “We’re called to build a relationship. It will be good for Saint Francis and north Salina.”