“Through my work with the SCJs I’ve become a more prayerful, accepting and giving person… St. Joe’s has given me the opportunity to become a better person than I was 45 years ago, to fulfill my dream of working with children and now adults and families. What I have given to them is in no way what I have gotten from them in return.”
-Mary Jane Alexander, former principal, teacher, volunteer and alumni liaison of St. Joseph’s Indian School
When she came to St. Joseph’s Indian School 45 years ago, Mary Jane Alexander didn’t even have a teaching certificate. She saw a magazine advertisement for the school and decided to apply.
“I wanted to work with children and was particularly interested in the fact that it was a school for Native Americans,” she said.
Two weeks after she sent back the one-page application and a photo she received a call from Fr. Tom Lind, SCJ.
“You’re hired; when can you come out?” said Fr. Tom.
Mary Jane’s first job was as a teacher’s aid, working with third and fourth grade students. She also helped in the dorms as needed. Considered a volunteer, her compensation was room, board and $200 a month. Although she didn’t have a degree in teaching, it wasn’t her first time in the classroom. During her five years as a Sinsinawa Dominican sister, Mary Jane taught second grade at a parish school and assisted with the kindergarten class.
After a few years as a volunteer, Mary Jane was asked to temporarily fill in for a teacher who had left the school. “I ended up teaching the entire year and continued in the classroom [fourth grade] for several years while taking college courses at Mitchell [Dakota Wesleyan University] in the summer.”
Going to school part-time, Mary Jane eventually earned her teaching degree and taught fourth grade for 20 years.
And then she returned to school again, this time for a degree in administration. “It was at the prodding of an SCJ,” she said. “He challenged me to consider administration. I didn’t like the idea of spending my summers back in school but I did it and after three years I had enough credits to do an internship as a principal.”
Of course, she chose St. Joseph’s as her internship location. Eventually, the internship turned into a full-time job as principal.
Mary Jane missed being in the classroom, but as principal “I was able to meet and visit with more of the parents, which didn’t happen often when I was a teacher,” she said.
During Mary Jane’s 45 years at St. Joseph’s she saw the school go through many changes. “The major change was the move away from the dorms to the homes,” she said. “We’d have 50-60 students in each dorm whereas now it is just 10-12 students in a home.”
The classroom sizes changed as well. When Mary Jane started, classrooms had 20-30 students. Now, 10-12 is the norm. “With both changes we are better able to reach the children’s academic, social, spiritual and emotional needs and help them to grow.
“We are also doing more with the families as a whole, helping them to be more invested in their child’s education.”
Change also includes increased resources to serve the students’ needs. “In the early 1970s we were lucky if we had enough Crayons for all of the children; we kept them in boxes in the storeroom,” Mary Jane said. “There weren’t enough text books for each student to have his or her own, so they shared.” Through the generosity of benefactors, that began to change in the 1980s. Now, each classroom is fully equipped with modern academic equipment, such as digital whiteboards.
“And each student has a box of Crayons!” she laughed.
After a dozen years as principal of St. Joseph’s Indian School, Mary Jane became the Alumni Liaison in 2003.
“I feel that I have come full circle,” she said. “I started working with children both in the dorms and the school, and now I am working with some of these same ‘children’ again, but as adults…
“It’s wonderful to have alumni come back and recall things that happened when they were here and know that I was a part of it. The respect of the students and their families has only deepened over the years. Many have told me that I am part of their family, that I am their children’s grandma. It’s an honor.
“I also have had the opportunity in this position to meet people from the school’s earliest days. The stories they share, the hardships as well as the good times they had here, and learning what they went on to do after they left. There is never a week in this job that goes by where I haven’t met someone who was a former student who stops by or calls.”
Mary Jane even met four alumni from St. Joseph’s first year, when the school’s doors opened in 1927. Since that meeting, three of the four have died. “One gentleman is still alive,” she said. “I try to visit with him at least twice a year…
“I tell people that I have the best job on the whole campus. I meet the kids who are here now and then I get to meet and visit with others who went here 10, 25, 89 years ago! I’m truly blessed.”
When she leaves St. Joseph’s in a few weeks, Mary Jane says that she will consider herself an alumna of the school. “I’ll come back to visit, especially for the 90th anniversary celebration and the powwow.”
She also considers herself a “Dehonian,” following the charism of the SCJs’ founder, Fr. Leo John Dehon.
“Volunteering, going out to others, the less fortunate, those in need –– that is what is important to me,” said Mary Jane. “This is very in tune with Fr. Dehon’s message to go out and be with the people…
“Through my work with the SCJs I’ve become a more prayerful, accepting and giving person… St. Joe’s has given me the opportunity to become a better person than I was 45 years ago, to fulfill my dream of working with children and now adults and families.
“What I have given to them is in no way what I have gotten from them in return.”
Mary Jane will soon be moving to her hometown of Minneapolis where much of her family still lives. Her new apartment is close to the school where her niece teaches second grade. Not ready for a quiet retirement, Mary Jane has plans to volunteer at the school, as well as the nearby Veterans Administration complex.