Lisa D’Alessio still remembers a phone call she got 39 years ago, when she was told not to come to school that morning because the campus had burned down.
She was a sophomore at Seton Catholic High School, one of Chandler’s oldest schools. She found out that somebody had intentionally set the school on fire, destroying much of the property.
D’Alessio recalled how devastating the fire was to the Seton community, yet it later became a testament to the resiliency of the staff and students.
“We worked around it, we worked together,” D’Alessio said.
The 1980 fire was an important chapter in the history of Seton, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this school year.
It forced Seton’s students and teachers to move to a new campus on Dobson Road, where the school has remained ever since. Now known as Seton Catholic Preparatory, the school has continued to grow over the years, adding new facilities and expanding its number of pupils.
“We look forward to our growth over the next 10 years,” said Principal Victor Serna. “Seton is going to make significant improvements to our campus and secure our future for generations to come.”
Seton will be commemorating its anniversary with various celebrations throughout this school year, acknowledging the history that gave the school its foundation.
The school was originally the brainchild of Father Joseph Patterson, who was considered an important figure in Chandler’s Hispanic community.
He was once called “Chandler’s Father Flanagan,” a reference to Edward Flanagan, the priest who founded an orphanage in Nebraska known as Boys Town.
A Texas native, Patterson moved to Arizona with his family in 1918 and enlisted in the U.S. Army before deciding to enroll in a seminary.
He came to Chandler in the 1930s and noticed Hispanic children were not advancing far in public schools.
“In Chandler, the kids had a terrible time getting past the third grade and only four or five would even get to high school,” Patterson told a newspaper in 1985.
Schools were still segregated at this time and Hispanic students had to attend Winn School on Saragosa Street. Former students later reported being punished severely at Winn for speaking Spanish during class.
Patterson sought to create a more welcoming educational environment.
He started by offering summer classes and renovated his church’s basement to serve as a recreation center for local children.
In 1944, Patterson helped build a new elementary school on Chandler Boulevard that could serve 120 pupils. As the students got older, Patterson realized there was a need to build a high school that could accommodate them.
He opened Seton High School in 1954 and named it after Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born woman canonized by the Catholic Church.
When his schools first opened, Patterson noted that about 95 percent of students were Hispanic. The handful of Caucasian students only lasted a day, Patterson recalled.
The demographics changed over time as more students from around the East Valley began enrolling at Seton. Patterson left the school in 1958 after he suffered a stroke and later established a scholarship fund for future students.
Patterson’s former students spoke fondly of him and appreciated his ability to create a community for them in Chandler.
“There’s never been another like him. He’s a living saint,” said Lupe Robles, a Seton graduate, shortly before Patterson’s death.
Seton’s future was upended on Sept. 12, 1980 when three people started a fire on the school’s campus and caused about $800,000 worth of damage.
Students and parents worked together to salvage whatever lab equipment and textbooks they could find in the rubble.
The staff managed to retrieve a cross that had withered through the fire’s destruction mostly unscathed. They later put it up in the front office of Seton’s new campus, where it remains to this day.
“We’ve always thought of that as our Phoenix rising out of the flames,” said Pat Collins, one of Seton’s former principals.
Seton has grown and changed over the years, Collins said, but the school still encourages students to adopt the values of public service that were important to Patterson.
“They’re always carrying out his mission,” Collins said.
Students make visits to local food banks, assisted-living homes and the Arizona-Mexico border to help the Kino Border Initiative, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to migrants.
Many students have continued giving back to their communities into adulthood.
Dr. Michelle Doroz, who graduated in 1992, has volunteered her medical services to patients in Peru and India. Erin Bellefeuille, a graduate of the class of 2002, has gone on missionary trips to Haiti and Mexico.
Other graduates have served their community by being elected to public office.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs graduated from Seton in 1988 and said she had a positive experience attending the small school.
“It really felt like a family,” Hobbs said. “You really had a chance to get to know the people that you went to school with.”
Hobbs, who served several terms in the Arizona Legislature before she was elected to statewide office in 2018, said her Seton teachers encouraged her to examine things through different perspectives — like how to find modern relevancy in old works of classic literature.
Some graduates enjoyed their Seton experience so much they come back to teach.
Stephen Ryan graduated in 2012 and always appreciated Seton’s communal atmosphere. He decided to return a couple years ago to teach science.
“I did really want to come back here,” Ryan said.
For Lisa D’Alessio, who graduated in 1983 and now lives in California, Seton became a second home for her during adolescence and remains a fond memory.
“There was always that sense of community that was hard to replace,” she said. “That feeling of community became very important to me.”