FORT SMITH -- The building for St. Boniface School, which closed in July 2019 after 132 years of Catholic education, is now home to the Community School of the Arts.
The school, which began as the Academy of the Arts at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, became independent in 2016. It provides music, theater, dance and visual arts classes for 800 children and adults through after-school and weekend classes and residencies in local schools.
“We were running out of space for our programs at St. Bart’s (St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church). We were happy to move into St. Boniface in January and have a campus with an auditorium, a stage and space to spread out,” said Dr. Rosilee Russell, CSA executive director..
For Sheila Mann, who teaches voice and theater at CSA, coming back to St. Boniface was like coming home. Mann taught music at St. Boniface for several years before its closure.
Shannon Stoddard, director of theater, is a product of Fort Smith Catholic schools.
"Being in the choir at Trinity Junior High (in Fort Smith) was what really got me interested in singing and drama,” she said. “The first time I ever really sang I was apprehensive, but Mrs. (Phyllis) Hedrick made it fun. It was the first time I got to sing a solo.”
She joined the choir at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith as a teen and participated in the drama program at Southside High School. She continued studying music and theater at Centenary College in Xxxx(city, state)xxxxx and, in January 2018, she received her master’s degree in theater education from New York University.
“I really enjoy teaching here,” Stoddard said. “The auditorium has been lovely, and the acoustics are really great. Our youth theater’s performances are held in the Performing Arts Center, but we’ve done a lot of smaller showcases here, especially for the little kids, with basic lighting and some mike amplification.”
The school’s Suzuki strings and dance programs also use the auditorium.
“We have a pretty good chunk of Catholic school students,” Stoddard added. “Three Trinity students are in our current production of ‘Shrek the Musical,’ and a number are in our kids’ and children’s theater programs.”
In addition to on-site programs, CSA reaches 300 to 350 students through residencies at local public, private and charter schools. Stoddard has taught two residencies in after-school and summer programs at Christ the King School in Fort Smith, and drama instructor Cody Walls works with Trinity Junior High’s drama club.
“Trinity enjoys a great partnership with CSA,” Dr. Karen Hollenbeck, Trinity principal, said, “and it enables us to provide an opportunity for students interested in drama and theater that we might not otherwise be able to offer.”
Russell hopes to extend residencies to St. Boniface Church’s PRE students.
“We’re willing to provide opportunities for St. Boniface’s 130 PRE kids each week, perhaps through one-hour theater, dance, arts or show choir classes they can attend before their weekly PRE class. When we get past this pandemic, we’ll revisit that.”
Russell and Stoddard both expressed appreciation for the parish’s warm welcome.
“Everyone has been really great and supportive, especially Diane Willis (director of faith and formation),” Stoddard said, “and it’s great to be in such a positive and happy space.”
Father Mario Jacobo, St. Boniface pastor, agrees.
“I am pleased with our renters,” he said. “I’m happy to see the building being used to educate future generations in Fort Smith. I hope our building continues to be a school of faith, where our young people and children continue to learn to love God and serve their brothers and sisters.”
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