SALT LAKE CITY — Many high school seniors often feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

While that may not be the case for Juan Diego Catholic High School senior Nathan Rakowski, he definitely has some weight behind him: close to 47 years of family tradition.

Nathan is the 22nd member of his family to attend either Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City or Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah. Five other members of his generation have graduated or are expected to graduate from Catholic high schools in other states.

The family name is well-known at Juan Diego, which Nathan likes.

“It makes me feel appreciated, that my name has meaning,” he told Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

The family legacy began in 1969 when Catherine and Richard Gourde, parents of 11 children, made it a priority to send them all to Judge. Mary was the first to graduate in 1971, followed by Alice, Theresa, Regina, Loretta, Lorraine, Thomas, Jerry and James. (Rick and Paul attended Judge but did not graduate).

The elder Gourdes had received their Catholic education in California and North Dakota.

“I had excellent teachers, mostly nuns, who were loving and concerned and wanted us to know and live our Catholic faith,” Catherine said.

The Gourdes came to Utah when Richard was transferred to the predominantly Mormon state by the Department of Defense. At that time, Catherine felt that it was important for her children to get an education in their own religion and insisted they attend Catholic schools.

Sending 11 children to private Catholic schools may seem daunting today, but Catherine said back then, it wasn’t that hard. Father (later Monsignor) Robert Pollock, pastor of St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful from 1955 to 1969, made a deal with his parishioners that if they paid 10 percent of their income to the parish, they would not have to pay tuition for their children at St. Olaf School, she said.

That worked well until federal regulations prohibited the practice. Still, even then, tuition was low because the nuns taught for free, Catherine said.

She remembers that when her children went on to Judge, tuition was just $115. Several of the children assisted in the school kitchen to help pay for their tuition, as she did when she was a girl. Then, as her husband’s career improved, so did his income and it became easier, she said.

While not all of her children have stayed close to the Catholic teachings they learned in school, Catherine goes to daily Mass and prays they will come back to the faith.

Four of the couple’s children continued the Catholic school tradition. Rick Gourde sent his children Anthony and Ginger to Judge, while Theresa Gourde Williams’ children Scott and Sean attended Juan Diego.

Mary Gourde Rakowski also sent her seven children — Alicia, Andrew, John, Clare, Christopher, Julia and Nathan — to Catholic schools. The oldest two graduated from Judge and, when Nathan graduates next year, there will be five Juan Diego alumni in the family.

“In the last 35 years, we’ve never had a year when we didn’t have a child in Catholic school,” Mary said.

Alicia Rakowski Florin remembers riding the Utah Transit Authority bus to and from school.

“We were a little community within a community — all these kids in Judge uniforms riding the bus out west,” she said. “We were kids, of course, but we really tried to be mature. … We had a high moral compass for people riding the bus,” she added with a laugh.

Tom Gourde remembers the football games at Judge. He and his buddies would play a game of tag football before the main game started. He also remembers freshman initiation, when his sister Regina, then a senior, took great delight in making him consume sour milk and prune juice.

His sister Theresa said she made good friends at Judge, some of whom she is still close with today.

“I told my husband, Mike, when we moved back to Utah that our kids would be going to Catholic schools,” she said. “I wanted to continue to raise them in the faith.”

– – –

Petersen writes for Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.