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February 15, 2001   543 Words


Award-winning Movie Helped Build Catholic School

CINCINNATI—The new Sacred Heart Elementary School, located in DeSoto County, Mississippi, received partial funding from an unlikely source: an independent film called The Spitfire Grill.  The new structure, a $6.9 million facility that was dedicated in 1999, is a far cry from the battered trailers that once served as classrooms for the students at Sacred Heart, the only Catholic school in this exceptionally poor county.

The story is featured in the March issue of St. Anthony Messenger, under the title “Catholic School Built by a Movie.”  Author Jay Copp explores the struggle and unconventional methods the Sacred Heart League and its director, Roger Courts, used to help finance the new school building.  St. Anthony Messenger is a national Catholic magazine published monthly by the Franciscan friars in Cincinnati, Ohio.

For years, the Sacred Heart League, the fund-raising branch of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, sold plastic statues of Jesus for car dashboards and also partook in direct-mail solicitation for outreach funds.  Over time, however, the League decided that these procedures weren’t successful in raising sufficient funds.  Courts and his organization then stumbled upon an unorthodox way to raise money: making movies.

Unwavering in its promise to make responsible films, the League spent several years pondering script ideas, until a friend of Courts suggested considering Lee David Zlotoff, a writer on Hill Street Blues and creator of MacGyver.  Within weeks of meeting Zlotoff, the script for The Spitfire Grill began taking shape. 

Courts formed Gregory Productions, named after Father Gregory Bezy (the founder of the Sacred Heart League), to produce the film, with Zlotoff in the director’s chair.  The film was shot in Vermont and focuses on the spiritual journey of a female ex-convict who arrives in a small town in Maine and takes a job at a local diner called The Spitfire Grill.  Produced on a $6.1 million budget, it stars Alison Elliott, Marcia Gay Harden and Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn.

The Spitfire Grill garnered an Audience Award for best film at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, which is held in Park City, Utah.  In view of the award, as well as the tearful responses from festival audiences, Castle Rock Entertainment paid $10 million to distribute the film, which went on to gross approximately $28 million.

The new Sacred Heart School was financed by a $3.5 million donation from the film’s producers, with the remaining funds contributed by the Priests of the Sacred Heart.  The new 60,000 square-foot facility boasts 16 new classrooms, a computer lab, a science lab, a fine-arts room, a large gym, a chapel and a 16-acre nature reserve.  As a result, an additional 100 students enrolled this year, expanding the student population to 370.  Students who are unable to meet the tuition requirements receive financial aid—almost $84,000 this year.

On April 23, 1999, at the dedication of the new building, Court said, “We pray the facility will be a beacon of light, enlightenment, hope and goodness for all people of the community—children and adults—for many years to come.”


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