Located in the Thickwood Area, St. Gabriel Elementary School provides a wide range of high quality programming meeting the academic, cultural and spiritual needs of its community. Enrolment is approximately 300 students from Early Entry to Grade 6. St. Gabriel Elementary School offers a faith-based learning environment to students of any background and a level of instruction geared toward the highest academic standards. Instruction is primarily in English.
Although our school is only a quarter of a century old, our history goes back to 1930, even before the founding of our school district, originally called St. John’s Roman Catholic Separate School District #32. At that time Fort McMurray had only one public school and did not have a hospital. Residents of our community identified a serious need for improved medical services, including a hospital. They petitioned Bishop Emile Grouard (1840-1931) (Vicar Apostolic for this area) for a “sisters hospital” similar to one run by the Grey Nuns in Edmonton.
In 1935, Bishop Gabriel Breynat approved building of the hospital on the condition that a Catholic School was also built. Construction, done by the Oblate Brothers, began in 1936. Opened in 1937, it was named St. Gabriel hospital, after the Archangel Gabriel, patron saint of the bishop. It was staffed by the Grey Nuns. The school, St. John’s School, opened in 1936.
During boom times in the 1960s, it became apparent the community needed a larger public hospital. The Fort McMurray General Hospital opened in 1965 and St. Gabriel Hospital became a convalescent home. Later on, it was used for office space and was the first home of the Fort McMurray YMCA. The building was demolished in 1979 to make way for the Jubilee Centre.
At the same time, it became apparent that a new school was needed in the Thickwood Heights area (formerly called Area 5), as this area was growing very rapidly and was populated with young families. It was decided by the school board to name the new school after the former hospital. St. Gabriel Elementary and Junior High School opened for classes in the fall of 1981 and was officially opened by Bishop Raymond Roy of St. Paul Diocese on April 21, 1982.
Jerry Heck was the Superintendent of Schools at that time. First Principal and Vice Principal of our school were Chris Farthing and Kathleen Murphy-House respectively.
Within a year, population growth made it necessary to expand the school and a new wing with a new library, counsellng suite, and industrial arts and home economic laboratories were added. The old library became a second gymnasium for a time and was later renovated into a computer lab and music room. It also became essential to add portables and, when school population rose above 600 students, there were even temporary portables placed near where the playground equipment is located today.
St. Gabriel school has also been a school of innovation. When the school opened, it was the first school in our district to house elementary and junior high students under one roof. Over the years, we have piloted, experimented with or adopted a number of innovations to improve instruction and school management including school based budgeting, outcome based education, use of technology as a tool of instruction, an early entry program, “Accelerated Reader”, and integration of special needs students into regular classroom settings and instruction.
Principals of our school have been Chris Farthing, Art Zasadny, Paul McKenna, Rick Foret, Eileen McClean, Gil Espejo, Natasha MacArthur-Poole and John Barfoot. Vice Principals have been Kathleen Murphy-House (who also served half a year as Acting Principal), Hans Woehleke, Sheila Cookson, Rae Molzan, Eileen McClean, John Barfoot, Penny Beaudry, Trish MacIsaac, Lisa Hilsenteger, Dolores Abraham and Shelby Moser.
In recent years, learning is being enhanced by technological innovations in our classrooms to assist both learning and teaching, and a centre for video conferencing. Our school facilities have been brightened with painted ceiling tiles in classrooms and hallways, in addition to a first class playground. As we look forward to our second quarter century, St. Gabriel School continues to be an innovative school in which all our community members, students and staff, will want to learn and be.
(Sources of information for this essay include, The Place We Call Home by Irwin Huberman, information from the Internet, and information from past and present school staff.)