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Crusader legacy spans 60 years, 2 campuses

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CHULA VISTA – The motto “Once a Crusader, always a Crusader!” has been embraced by thousands of students for six decades now.

The Crusader legacy unites the former Marian High School, which closed in 2007, with its successor, the present-day Mater Dei Catholic High School, and with the elementary school Mater Dei Juan Diego Academy, which was established five years ago.

“Much has evolved over the past 60 years, but the spirit borne by those first Crusaders, teachers and administrators lives on today in the smiles, souls and ‘spirit of giving’ embodied by our current students,” said John Rey, president of Mater Dei Catholic High School and Mater Dei Juan Diego Academy.

At the start of the school year, Mater Dei Catholic kicked off the celebration of its 60th anniversary with a “Gratitude Week” that inspired more than 9,000 acts of gratitude, including video messages, thank you cards, and gifts delivered to civic leaders, first-responders, military personnel, parochial school principals, local family-owned businesses and others whose work has benefited the Mater Dei Catholic community.

In December, Mater Dei Catholic launched its 60-Year Legacy Campaign to raise $60,000 to assist school families in need and to purchase additional iPads for its elementary school; by the end of December, it had raised just under $103,000.

The Crusader legacy began in 1960, when Bishop Charles F. Buddy founded Marian High School, named in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 20 acres of land just outside of Imperial Beach. Opening with only three classrooms, it was the first co-educational Catholic high school in the Diocese of San Diego.

In 1992, Marian High changed its name to Marian Catholic High School, to more clearly express its Catholic identity. In 2007, it moved to a 48-acre, state-of-the-art facility in Chula Vista and was renamed Mater Dei Catholic High School.

The Crusader tradition has remained an integral part of the school. On the new campus, a Marian Chapel was built in honor of the school’s history and original name, the Crusader mascot found a new home, and the school colors continued to be blue and gold.

Harris Quesnell, a member of Marian High School’s class of 1964, credits his alma mater with setting the foundation for his career in research and development that began at the Naval Electronic Laboratory and concluded at George Mason University.

“The Catholic values of courage, insight and spirituality along with respect for oneself as well as others cannot be taught in a classroom,” Quesnell said, “but are part of the learning experience of Mater Dei.”

Maria Roberts, a member of the Marian’s Class of 1981, described her years at the school as “some of the best of my life” and “extremely formative.”

“I am deeply grateful for my Catholic school experience and the legacy of Marian that is carried on and even exceeded by Mater Dei,” she said.

A key figure in the transition from Marian to Mater Dei was Dr. Estelle Kassebaum, who served as principal of Marian High School from 1995 until her death in early 2006, just months before the old campus closed its doors.

Current principal Frank Stingo said, “With modern facilities dedicated to athletics, arts, theater, and spiritual development, Mater Dei has a commitment to creating well-rounded individuals, as well as excellent students.”

In 2015, Mater Dei expanded to include Mater Dei Juan Diego Academy, the first Catholic dual-language elementary school in San Diego.

“Our mission is to educate the next generation of bilingual, faith-filled, global leaders,” explained Leticia Oseguera, the academy’s principal.

In September 2021, Mater Dei Juan Diego Academy will offer transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, making Mater Dei Catholic the first TK-12 school in the San Diego Diocese. Both schools are thriving, with just under 1,000 students in the high school and almost 400 students in the elementary school.

In the last decade, Mater Dei Catholic’s award-winning Academy of Science has placed hundreds of high school students in internships with some of the most prestigious research institutions.

Aaliyah Balagtas, the valedictorian of the class of 2020, is majoring in biochemistry at University of California, Los Angeles. She said that it was through her Academy of Science internship that she “found a love for biochemistry and discovered how I could use my gifts in the world.”

She is far from the only student over the past six decades to make such a discovery.

“For 60 years, Marian/Mater Dei students have shared their educational experiences wherever they work, live and worship,” said Rey. “We continue to build on that tradition of excellence established when Marian High School first opened its doors. This past year is proof that our Mother Mary continues to guide us with hope.”

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