BELCOURT, N.D. - At St. Ann's Catholic School on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, volunteer principal Allen Mehrer also serves as music teacher, evening bus driver, maintenance worker and occasional custodian.
The school relies on volunteers and a handful of paid teachers who give new meaning to the word multi-tasking in order to provide a free Catholic education to elementary students on the reservation.
"Because of the economics here at Turtle Mountain, we don't want to close the door to any child," Mehrer said. "And we would be by charging people."
But with deteriorating buildings and no sustainable funding source, the school's future was in question.
"I approached the bishop about closing the school because we simply could not afford it," said the Rev. Jeff Eppler, in his fifth year serving as pastor for St. Ann's Parish.
Now the Fargo Catholic Diocese hopes to raise enough money to meet the immediate needs for St. Ann's and jump start long-term fundraising and development efforts.
The diocese selected St. Ann's Parish and School in Belcourt as a "Year of Mercy" project, prompted by an invitation from Pope Francis for every diocese to sponsor a project that would "respond in an enduring way to a specific need," said Bishop John Folda.
About $450,000 would meet the immediate needs of the school and parish, which include repairs to a building that could be condemned if the roof is not replaced. The effort is already off to a strong start with a pledge from an anonymous donor to match up to $200,000.
"I felt the diocese should do what we can to keep the doors open for the children and families of the Turtle Mountain Reservation," Folda said.
'Hope and light'
Upstairs from the offices of the priests and the church secretary, the smell of black mold fills a large room that once housed St. Ann's youth ministry.
The roof of the building has deteriorated beyond repair, leaking into the upper floor and causing plaster to fall from the ceiling. The damage and mold will seep to the main level soon if the roof isn't replaced and the upper floor gutted.
"We're kind of stuck having to face the reality that if we don't fix it, that section is going to simply be condemned," Eppler said.
Two buildings on the 40-acre St. Ann's Mission need to be demolished, and several other buildings are in need of repairs after years of minimal maintenance due to a lack of funding.
"We're in a pretty high unemployment area, so the income locally for the parish doesn't come anywhere near fixing our needs," Eppler said.
Estimates put the unemployment rate on the reservation in north central North Dakota at about 65 percent, he said.
Many of the families the school serves live at or below the poverty level. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated this year at least 40 percent of people on the Turtle Mountain Reservation live in poverty, nearly three times the rate of the rest of the country.
Although those statistics make it challenging to sustain the parish, Eppler said he dreads to think what the reservation would be like without the church.
"We become in many ways a beacon of hope and light for them," Eppler said. "And that's what we're here for anyway as a church, to bring the hope and light of God to his people, particularly those who really struggle. And there's a lot who struggle here."
Mehrer, who spent 38 years as a music teacher, primarily in Ashley, N.D., initially came to St. Ann's to volunteer as a music teacher when he was getting ready to retire.
Instead, he ended up becoming principal, working 60-hour weeks year-round to keep the school running and not collecting a paycheck.
Some days his job means picking up students from home because they missed the bus and their parents don't have a car. Last week he was troubleshooting laptops the school received as donations.
"This school is important so we've got to do what we've got to do," said Mehrer, 64, in his fourth year as principal.
The school, which serves kindergarten through sixth grades, used to rely solely on volunteers, but staff turnover every year made that impractical. Now the school has some paid staff, though Eppler notes they make considerably less than they could teaching at other area schools.
"It's a real blessing that when we started paying the staff, we've been able to keep teachers. That is essential," Eppler said.
Second-grade teacher Kateri Azure said students at St. Ann's develop study skills and are really encouraged to do well academically, which has led to several graduates becoming high school valedictorian after they move on to the local public high school.
Azure, who this year has eight children in her class, said the one-on-one attention students receive is unique.
"They can't fall through any cracks," said Azure, whose own children have attended the school.
The individual attention is one reason Michelle Martin said she encouraged her sons to enroll her grandchildren at St. Ann's, in addition to the faith-based education.
"The kids love it," Martin said.
Parents also say they like St. Ann's because it offers a safe and secure environment, Eppler said.
Fifth-grader Rosia Avila, in her second year attending St. Ann's, she said likes the small class sizes.
"I used to have severe anxiety and this place helped me open up," said Avila, whose favorite classes are religion and music.
No frills education
The enrollment is 34 this year, but the school could support 50 to 55 students, Mehrer said. Beyond that, the school would struggle to provide enough textbooks and other supplies.
"More students don't necessarily bring more money because we have to raise every dime," Mehrer said.
The school's operating costs are just over $200,000 a year, Eppler said.
"We cut every fat out of that and we boil the bones," Eppler said. "There are no frills there."
That budget needs to be raised through donations every year, making fundraising a nonstop process, Mehrer said. His major concern is that he keeps his commitments to provide an education to students and salaries to staff.
"So there's a lot of pressure to raise that money. Sometimes I start the year and I don't have it," Mehrer said. "You can't say to somebody, 'I don't have it this month.'"
Since the Fargo Diocese has become more active in supporting the school, the funding situation has stabilized and Mehrer said he feels more comfortable knowing the school isn't on its own.
"It's been truly a miracle," Mehrer said.
To donate to St. Ann's or get more information, visit www.stannsmission.org. Donations also may be sent to: Diocese of Fargo Mercy Project, c/o Office of Stewardship and Development, 5201 Bishops Blvd, Suite A, Fargo, ND 58104.