By Diane Freeby
SOUTH BEND — Referring to it as “the opportunity of a lifetime,” Saint Joseph’s High School Principal Susan Richter beamed at last week’s announcement that construction on a brand-new high school building, at a new downtown location, could begin as early as June 2011.
Bishop John M. D’Arcy made the announcement at Saint Joseph’s, flanked by Richter and Nancy Hellyer, chief executive officer of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center (SJRMC). SJRMC is vacating its current building next month and moving to a new facility in Mishawaka, donating the land for the new school construction.
“The mission of the Sisters of the Holy Cross has been to improve the health of our community, and they’ve had a long-standing tradition in both education and health care,” said Hellyer. “The preservation of this site where the Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center hospital is today, in a mission that is so founded with the sisters, is just going to be a wonderful tribute to them.”
Despite the current economy, the diocesan requirement of $26,625,000 cash-on-hand before construction can begin, and limited dates for fundraising, Saint Joseph’s school board President Matt Edmonds believes the time is right.
“I think there’s great support for this,” said Edmonds. “It’ll show the wonderful impact the students and faculty of Saint Joe High School can have on the South Bend community. I’ve referred to it as dropping the pebble in the pond, and the positive effect we can have in that neighborhood. This is a great opportunity!”
Faculty members cheered, expressing their gratitude as details were explained. “I’m 100 percent sure we can do it,” exclaimed 20-year counselor Kathy Utz. “We have the people. We have the community support. It’s going to happen!”
South Bend Mayor Stephen Luecke said the city welcomes the possible move.
“With the new construction, we think there will be re-investment in the neighborhood,” explained Luecke. “The city is investing significantly in the downtown/East Race area. The Eddy Street Commons, and the whole area, is really coming together. Saint Joe is going to be at the nexus point for all that, with lots of new private investment in conjunction with the new school there.”
Plenty of hurdles remain, including raising the $35 million construction cost. Part of that may come from selling land currently owned by Saint Joseph’s High School at the corner of State Road 933 and Angela Blvd.
Both Bishop D’Arcy and University of Notre Dame officials say negotiations have begun, although the university has no specific plan for the property.
Not everyone thinks new construction is the answer.
“My concern all along has been Saint Joseph’s High School loses an awful lot of exposure if they move,” said Saint Joseph’s alum and parent Ken Cyr. “The current site is like Catholic education row. While no official affiliation exists, being on the same street with Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross creates an identity that simply isn’t present at the new site.”
Others express concern about the effect on enrollment at Marian High School, and the safety of students at the proposed location.
However, some insist the move is in line with Catholic teaching.
“I think it would be a great anchor for the school to move downtown,” said Saint Joseph’s parent Judy Madden. “It may help stabilize the area, reduce crime, and invite more families. And part of the Catholic mission is to go where we can serve, not just where it’s ‘safe.’”
Discussions on whether to build a new high school or renovate the current building have been ongoing for three years.
Bishop D’Arcy says the fall-back plan is to ask donors if gifts could be used to renovate the current building, should plans for new construction fall short.
“The feeling of the St. Joe community was that there was insufficient land here for some of the things they wanted to do, a second gym with women’s sports — today, that’s so very necessary — space for a football field, although this $35 million does not include a full football field, a chapel — so necessary in a Catholic school, and other things like that,” explained Bishop D’Arcy.
“The facility is 56 years old, and we really need a complete renovation in terms of electrical, HD-AC,” added Richter. “So the renovation isn’t just adding another wing, or it’s not just adding a second gym but we’re really talking about a complete overhaul. I think that renovation would be extensive. Again, I come back to my fear of disrupting the educational process, because I don’t think that could all be completed in the short amount of summer break we have.”
Bishop D’Arcy admits a lot of work is needed to raise the funds.
“There’s extraordinary interest in the South Bend area especially,” said Bishop D’Arcy. “But we do expect it to be an uphill battle. I think because of the spirit of Saint Joe High, there’s a good chance. But these conditions were necessary and it will be uphill.”
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