by Jim Bulls
St. John the Baptist De La Salle was born into a wealthy and noble family in Rheims, France. By age 16 he was named a canon of Rheims Cathedral and was ordained into priesthood by age 26. La Salle gave up a promising, and possibly brilliant, ecclesiastical career to take up a life filled with poverty, persecution, and contempt. He also became the educational genius of the seventeenth century and the founder of modern methods of teaching.
La Salle’s educational career began when he taught and supported a free school for the poor boys of Rheims in 1680. Soon after, he and 12 young teachers founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. In the U.S., this religious institute is known as The Christian Brothers. This was also the first Roman Catholic institute that did not include any priests because La Salle felt that the Brothers should dedicate their lives entirely to education.
Church authorities resisted the idea of a new form of religious life and those in education resented La Salle’s innovative teaching methods. La Salle persisted in his endeavors and his Brothers created a network of quality schools throughout France, as well founding what is generally believed to be the first normal school, or school whose sole purpose is to train teachers. La Salle died in 1719 and was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in May 1900. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed him the patron saint of all teachers.
To support their institutes, the Christian Brothers distilled wine and brandy. They dedicated the earnings from their communion wines to the support of the free schools they built in their local parishes. And this brings us to Reedley, about the turn of the century.
The collapse of the wheat market in California, forced many wheat growers to declare bankruptcy. T.L. Reed was able to keep his head above water because of his investments in oil and his grape vineyards—grapes that were used for wine production. John Fairweather, owner/editor of the Reedley Exponent, promoted building wineries, a cannery, and a dehydrator in Reedley. Eventually, four wineries were built in the vicinity of Reedley. The one we’re interested in was located on LacJac Avenue, west of town.
About 1900, two gentlemen by the name of Lachman and Jacoby, arrived in Reedley from San Francisco for the express purpose of building a winery. They purchased a large parcel of land between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroad beds. Spur lines from both railroads were built to the winery to serve their shipping needs. But for some reason, they had all kinds of problems. First with the delivery of the wine grapes and then with finances. Eventually the Reedley Winery bought the LacJac winery to cut out some of their competition. The equipment ended up on the back side of Smith Mountain as part of a winery located south of Orange Cove.
Throughout the area, large vineyards were being planted under the names of Great Western, Wahtoke, and Carmelita. With thousands of acres of grapes under production, it looked like the wine industry was going to pull California agriculture out of the wheat depression. But along came 1919 and the 18th Amendment—Prohibition! All distilleries were shut down. T.L. Reed and others, sold off their vast vineyards to be broken up into smaller parcels of 20 to 160 acres. This was the beginning of the era of small family farms.
Throughout Prohibition and The Great Depression which followed, the former winery located on LacJac Avenue was used to pack and ship table grapes. In 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed and it wasn’t long before the plant had a new name, Mt. Tivy Winery & Distillery, and was burning the midnight oil to keep up with demand for alcoholic beverages.
In addition to wine, Mt. Tivy also began producing brandy. Brandy needs to be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. During this storage and aging period, the brandy is taxed yearly. A large percentage of the tax collected goes directly to the school district the distillery is located in. Therefore, Riverview School became one of the wealthiest schools in Fresno County.
In 1943, Seagrams and Sons purchased the winery from Mt. Tivy. Following World War II, The Christian Brothers (remember them?) located in Napa Valley were looking for an existing winery to expand their brandy production. A proposal was made, accepted, and Christian Brothers Winery came to Reedley.
Following tradition, it wasn’t long before the Brothers built a convent and school in Reedley, located on Manning Avenue. The first residents of the convent were the missionary sisters of a Franciscan order, Our Lady of Sorrows Mission, in Portland, Oregon. Their order had been ousted from China when the Communists took over that country.
The school opened in September 1950, with five classes: kindergarten through fourth grade. Every year another classroom was completed and one more grade was added until St. La Salle reached K-8 status. The first eighth grade graduation took place in 1957. I was in elementary school during that time, and I remember that every year many of my Catholic classmates would leave Lincoln to attend St. La Salle. In the fall of 1957, we were all reunited as Freshmen at Reedley High School to become the Class of 1961. Can’t believe that we are having our 55th class reunion on September 23!
Sometime in 1954 the marble statue of St. John the Baptist De La Salle with two young boys was added to the front of the school, along with the stained glass window that graces the chapel facade. The stained glass was created in Dublin, Ireland, and the statue came from a sculpture studio in Pietrasanta, Italy. This was during the era of Monsignor Patrick Hannon. Just like Chief Kroeker and the local photographer, Art Nelson, Monsignor Hannon was a well-known figure in Reedley, no matter what your religious affiliation.
Monsignor Hannon gave my mother, Minnie Bulls, one of the nicest compliments a Protestant teacher could receive. She was well-known in town herself and beloved by her students. As a mother of just one child, she filled the void by treating all of her classes as extended family. At the time only one teacher in a family could teach in Reedley Unified schools, so because my Dad taught at Lincoln, my Mom could no longer teach at Riverview. The compliment came via a phone call and Monsignor offering Mom a job teaching at St. La Salle. Sadly, she had just accepted a position with Selma Unified School District that very same day. If you had been able to teach at St. La Salle, she would have been their first Protestant teacher.
From 1968 through 1985, lay person Thomas Cassidy was principal of St. La Salle. At that time, Diana and I were living in Parlier, and when it was time for Rebecca to start school, we enrolled her at St. La Salle in September 1973. Being a Christian Brothers school, there was no tuition then, just a $150 registration fee.
Becki loved St. La Salle, and she attended kindergarten through second grade there. Her teachers were Sr. Mary Louise, Sr. Karlene and Sr. Imogene. All three were very sensitive to the fact that Becki was a Methodist and not Catholic. We loved the fact that the classes were small, and that it was a loving and supportive environment. As open-minded Methodists, we thought the religious education aspect was a plus.
Becki has some funny memories about her school experiences. When she was in kindergarten, several of The Brothers were visiting the school on their annual inspection tour. One of them presented Becki with a rosary—he thought her family was too poor to afford one. Sister Mary Louise confiscated it, much to Becki’s regret. It was the custom to pair up second graders, preparing for their first communion, with eighth graders when going to chapel. Because Becki wasn’t Catholic, she was not supposed to take communion, but she was very curious about the wafer. In our Methodist Church, we used bread, not wafers. Everyone else in her class had already celebrated this important event, and she was feeling left out. At the end of the school, a visiting brother served communion following chapel. Becki was supposed to sit in the pew, but her partner told her to just get in line with everyone else, the brother would never know she wasn’t a Catholic. All went as planned, until Sr. Imogene realized what was happening, but it was too late. Later that night, after a couple of phone calls from the school, Becki declared she liked the bread better.
We moved into Reedley in 1976, and Becki started attending public school. It was about this time that the Christian Brothers turned the administration of the school over to St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Without the funding from the Christian Brothers’ order, it was necessary to begin charging tuition. Although we would have liked Becki to continue at St. La Salle, the fees for non-Catholic students were too expensive. Diana maintains that Becki’s good study habits were because of the small classes and individual attention she received in those first three years of school.Today, under the able leadership of Principal Sister Lucy Cassarino, enrollment has nearly doubled. The student body is made up of children from Reedley, Parlier, Orange Cove, Kingsburg, Selma, Dinuba, and Sanger. St. La Salle’s curriculum includes technology, art, music, and foreign language. Classes are pre-kindergarten through eighth grade with a mission to provide a Christ-centered education in which children may grow in relationship with and in respect for God, others, self, and environment. The school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
And what about the Christian Brothers winery out on LacJac? The winery was sold and is now owned by Golden State Vintners since May 1995. Linda Penner purchased the large, two-story former residence of the Brothers and moved it to south Reed Avenue for use at her Reedley Bed & Breakfast facility.
Today my only connection with Christian Brothers is through my brother-in-law, Ed Dutcher, and the bottle of Christian Brothers Brandy I keep for medicinal purposes.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.