CONWAY -- Held up for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Joseph School in Conway is officially launching its $10.9 million capital campaign for a new high school, replacing its 70-year-old building.
“In times like this with this pandemic, it throws into question ‘what are our values?’ It’s so easy to give in to despair and anxiety as a response to this sudden loss of control of our daily lives,” said pastor Father Tony Robbins. “But with faith and what's been instilled in us since our childhood, that provides a response that maintains our peace and our confidence that somehow God is going to see us through this and come out on the other side. And investment in the school is an investment in the faith. It’s something you can’t really put a price tag on and when is it a good time to do that? Any time.”
The parish already has $2.8 million in pledges but is still $1.2 million shy of its initial goal to receive a $4 million matching gift from an anonymous donor. If the rest is raised, the school can break ground this spring with $8 million pledged. The total cost of the project includes tearing down the existing high school.
“As you know with a Catholic school, you have to be very mindful of money spent, be a good steward, but think of the big picture,” said interim principal Matt Tucker, who is also the middle school principal, adding that this year’s senior class “will see fences going up, dirt getting moved.”
The plan for a new 39,000-square-foot building has been years in the making, part of a master plan for the parish community that has involved the new Spiritan Center (completed in 2018) and moving the elementary school from across the street to the church grounds.
The parish first opened a Catholic school in 1879. Its first high school opened in 1951 in the same building used today. It is about 21,000 square feet with 12 classrooms. The school uses portable buildings and classrooms in the Spiritan Center to accommodate its 207 students, said high school principal Teri Breeding.
“Just having room for growth would make a difference. It would increase the number of kids we could fit in a classroom,” Breeding, an alumna, said.
Campaign activities resumed in October, with committee members soliciting donations.
The planned two-story building will include 11 classrooms, a black-box theater, student union and eight larger classrooms for music, industrial tech, computer and science labs. The building will be constructed next to the current school, taking up the back parking lot near College Avenue. A 12-foot wide sidewalk and buffers will create distance between the road and the high school. It is scheduled to be finished in summer 2022.
Parishioners Jake Nabholz, of Nabholz Construction, and H+N Architects’ Joanna Nabholz are leading the project. The companies also built the parish’s Spiritan Center and are working on the new Catholic Campus Ministry building at the University of Central Arkansas.
“We started over 10 years ago just looking at the campus as a whole and what we can do to make it look more cohesive and more like a school campus,” said Joanna Nabholz, a 2003 St. Joseph graduate. “We wanted the buildings to all go together … and compliment the church.”
While the Spiritan Center is more traditional, the high school was designed to “appeal to the students and make it a really comfortable place for them to go out and hang out” and learn, she said.
Tucker said one exciting feature is the black box theater, a square room with black walls, that can be converted to a variety of theater staging options with seating for 75. Without a stage setting, it can hold up to 200 for dinners and school and community events.
“This could also be a space that the community at large can utilize,” introducing more people to the Catholic school, Tucker said.
Even with the future unknown amid the pandemic, Father Robbins said they’re hopeful alumni, parishioners and the community will continue to contribute to the project.
“The thing I’m most confident in is that it’s going to happen, just because of our value of the faith and passing it onto the children. It stays with them,” he said.
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