The Billings Area Catholic Education Trust (BACET) celebrates its 40th Anniversary in the fall 2013. There was necessary groundwork to lay prior to August 3, 1973 – the date the initial trust agreement was signed. The following is an account given by the original volunteers.
In 1972 it became known that a local philanthropist to Billings Central Catholic High School had conversations with a few closely connected individuals to the Billings Catholic Schools. Mr. Philip Fortin was inquiring about his family gifts, and whether they were making a difference. In fear of losing any future contributions, Mr. Ralph Studer, Sr. began making some calls.
Word of this issue was traveling among a few school board members. After one particular board meeting, Chairman Archie Vap, brothers Dean and Ralph Studer, and Jim Thelen had further discussion about creating a savings or endowment fund. This type of fund would encourage large donors who wanted assurance about their gifts to the Catholic schools. These four gentlemen knew immediate planning was necessary. They wanted to involve others who had the schools at heart and could devote time to this special project. Knowing that there was a need for hard-workers currently serving on the various parish boards, the group called upon Charles Heringer, Jr., Joe Keating and Ruben Day.
Ralph Studer, Sr. had made contact with Charles Heringer, Jr. At Ralph’s urging, a meeting was called at the personal home of Charles Heringer, to resolve this growing concern. The issue at hand was developing a system of checks and balances in accountability, a savings fund, or perhaps pooling donations into an endowment, much like those within collegiate systems. Those present at this meeting included the host-Charles Heringer, Jr., Ralph Studer, Jr., Dean Studer, Ruben Day, Jim Thelen, Joe Keating and Archie Vap. (A sincere apology to any individuals who may have been omitted).
The group was in consensus regarding the reason for action – the two-legged stool supporting the Catholic schools was unsteady and about to topple! One “leg” of the stool was comprised of tuition; the other “leg” was parish assessment monies. The third “leg” needed to be built – that of community contributions inspired by the gifts from significant individual donors. A sense of matching was needed to maintain the interest of those generous donors, such as the Philip and Mary Alice Fortin Family. It became evident that outside funding was necessary to the survival of the beloved Billings Catholic Schools.
Initial questions needed to be answered by the committee members. Would the funding be for all the Catholic schools in Billings, or Central High School alone? How would the fund be set up? Would the fund be controlled by school board members, or by independent trustees?
To answer the first question, it became apparent that the committee would need to work in unifying the separate Catholic schools into one school system with one board. Fratt Memorial, Holy Rosary, Little Flower, St. Pius X and Central High School would need to unify in order to not only survive but to provide quality programs. There must be a citywide board, comprised of lay persons and pastors, representative of all parishes in Billings. Also, there must be a Director of Education hired and responsible to the school board. Over one year’s time was spent on this unification process.
Over the next four or five meetings, the committee worked to name the organization. Committee members knew early on that they would meet resistance for erasing parish boundaries. With this in mind, the name was determined to be the “Billings Area (all schools and parishes) Catholic Education (not solely school) Trust.” This was to include a unified CCD program, not merely funding provided for the academic portion of the schools. The committee knew that everyone would need to be behind the concept and they coined the adjacent term “BACK-IT.” To all involved, BACET seemed an acceptable title for an endowment. (Charles Heringer is credited with the origination of the full name as it stands today).
This working committee put ideas down on paper, continually revising and fine-tuning their ideas. These meetings occurred two or three times monthly, at the Heringer or Dean Studer residence. With each new meeting, Joe Keating would arrive with a fresh “draft” of notes, compliments of his office secretary.
The committee worked diligently to outline the provisions for gifts, the subsequent management of funds, and the annual distributions to the schools. Trustees would oversee this fund, as to take the burden away from the busy school board members. The committee took their ideas to prominent Billings’ attorney John “Skeff” Sheehy, for advice on forming a legal entity. The completed trust agreement was then sent to the Diocesan attorney, Orin Cure. After several months’ wait, a draft was returned as the group’s constitution and by-laws. Consultation and approval was also received from the Internal Revenue Service.
Donations gifted to this newly created organization must be tax deductible. This meant that Bishop Eldon Schuster of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings would need to give his approval and place the organization under the church’s tax-exempt code. The BACET committee knew that to move forward with success, they would need to secure Bishop Schuster’s approval, and his approval hinged on the priests’ acceptance!
With this in mind, committee members decided to call upon each priest. As a whole, they were skeptical of the proposed unified system and the endowment trust concepts. The priests asked the committee to explain the concepts to all Billings parishioners from each of the six pulpits. After it appeared to be well accepted by each congregation, the priests gave their collective approval to the BACET committee.
BACET was close to fruition now. A final item remaining was the appointment of the first Trustees. There was no doubt that the committee wanted Trustees of unquestionable character from the Catholic community. They were community leaders who believed in Catholic education, and had the time to volunteer their efforts to the trust. Ralph J. Studer, Sr., William P. Roscoe, Jr., Louis R. Hall, John E. Tenge, and Agnes O’Leary were chosen as First Trustees. Charles J. Heringer, Jr. was elected Secretary and Larry Chouinard was elected Treasurer. William Roscoe was appointed Chairman. According to a press release appearing in The Billings Gazette, Roscoe said “I am confident that people will support private education as the benefits are realized.”
An account for the newly created BACET was opened at Midland National Bank, with the above six contributing $500 each for an opening deposit of $3,000. The first BACET Board of Trustees meeting was held on August 20, 1973, at the Ralph Studer, Sr. residence. The sites of future meetings would be Midland National Bank and St. Vincent’s Marillac Hall. It is evident from minutes of the December 11, 1973 meeting that the parishes were all in full support of BACET and its endeavors.
For three to four years, BACET had a slow start. There was an annual Christmas appeal and memorial giving was modest, but funds were slow to trickle in. A new thrust for BACET came in the late 70’s when BACET acquired a $20,000 gift from Montana-Dakota Utilities. The largest growth of the trust began in 1990 and continues through today, due to increased visibility and the realization that BACET is a worthy Montana endowment.
The Trustees knew the importance of their work then and now. Over 60 dedicated individuals have served as Trustee, with a group of about 30 reserved in the ranking “Emeritus Trustee.” It is every Trustee’s primary responsibility to help the endowment grow through his/her efforts.
One Trustee remains from the original five – Mr. Louis Hall. When asked for a comment, he replied “All five of my children received a quality education from the Billings Catholic Schools. We want to preserve these schools and our faith – this is why everyone worked hard and efforts continue today.”
Truly, the concept for BACET can be attributed to Phil Fortin and Ralph Studer, Sr. These two friends came together to provide the momentum to form BACET. The “worker bees” laid the groundwork, and the Trustees governed the operations of the thriving organization.
Countless other community members, clergy, and especially the donors have carried forward the mission of BACET since 1973. Many good people have done their part to promote and ensure Catholic education in Billings.