By ANDREW NELSON and STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writers | Published September 13, 2012
ATHENS—Under overcast skies, students and parents lined up outside the doors of the new St. Joseph School Wednesday, Sept. 5, awaiting the official opening of its doors for the 2012-2013 school year.
The key to the new brick building was given to a young pre-kindergarten student at the back of the line and passed through the hands of each student until it reached the main doors. The doors were opened and the excited youngsters walked into the building.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Sharon Gamble, whose daughter, Leah, is a seventh-grader. Leah is the third of Gamble’s children to attend St. Joseph’s, with the other two now in high school.
“It is a beautiful facility. … They did a beautiful job,” she added.
The most important thing is what happens inside the building, and she has no doubts about the quality of education her daughter is receiving.
“It’s always been about the community,” she said. “I have noticed a renewed sense of energy in the school. It’s very exciting.”
St. Joseph School dates back more than half a century. It opened in 1949 as some three dozen students attended classes on the first floor of the parish rectory.
An expansion in 2001 brought modular classrooms to the campus. The new additions on campus were for the middle schoolers. The facilities gained six additional classrooms and office space.
However, in 2006, St. Joseph Church and School started to look again for space to grow. The parish community found 46 acres on Epps Bridge Parkway, near the line between Clarke and Oconee counties. The community embarked on a $6 million construction project for a new school campus, including a multipurpose building with a gymnasium, chapel and track/soccer field. Just over $5 million has been raised so far for the project.
“It gives us a sense of achievement. The sacrifices have come to fruition,” said Father David McGuinness, St. Joseph’s pastor. He said donors gave to help “their children and their grandchildren.”
In addition to new buildings, the project has had a spiritual dimension, renewing people’s commitment to the parish, he said. The pastor credited the former pastor, Father Lawrence Niese, for building the foundation for this project.
The downtown St. Joseph Church and School on Prince Avenue will soon be put on the market, he said. The proceeds from the sale will help the parish build a new church at the Epps Bridge Parkway site with more resources for the growing community, Father McGuinness said.
The new school building was dedicated on April 17, 2012. Due to final construction, it opened a month later than other Catholic schools this fall. It serves children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, with some 235 students.
Principal Charles Martin said the school community will remember fondly its original home on Prince Avenue, but is excited about the promise of the new facility.
“Our parish and school community is ecstatic with the new campus and facility. We had over 60 families volunteer to help move the school. Their generosity of time and talent allowed us to move the entire school in just two days. It was an amazing, concentrated demonstration of the support and love our parish displays throughout the year,” he said.
Martin said the campus would accommodate the school growing to more than 500 students.
“Our new campus has a gymnasium and dedicated science lab, two amenities our students and faculty did not have at our last home, but are very excited to take advantage of now,” he said.
After students filed in, parents were invited inside for refreshments and to tour the new facility, while the students got busy with schoolwork. Many parents came prepared with cameras and smartphones to document the event, snapping photos of their children settling into the new classrooms.
“I’ve had goosebumps all morning,” said Lori Wright, mother of two students at the school, Julia in first grade and Claire in fourth grade.
“We absolutely love St. Joe’s,” she said, adding that she was impressed by the new facility and excited about the new school year. “It’s awesome. It’s more than we had even hoped for.”
Teachers joined in the excitement of the first day of school. Chris Moore was very happy about the new facility. She teaches fourth and fifth grades.
“After having the smallest classroom in the old building, I feel like I’m in the Taj Mahal—no lie. The rooms are so spacious and full of natural light. I truly love my space,” she said.
Little features like classroom sinks and room thermostats make her and other teachers very happy.
Moore had followed the construction of the project on her blog, “Watch Us Grow.” A teacher for five years at the school, Moore posted photos as the building went from nothing to a shell to the final installation of the windows.
“It’s been special to see things unfold and report on them from the teacher perspective. We have traipsed through the mud, climbed sand piles, watched as the walls went up, and had such fun envisioning where our classrooms would be,” she said.
The multipurpose building remains a work in progress. But once it is done, Moore, who is also a girls basketball coach, said “the opportunities our students will now have are limitless.”
Students will have their gym for class and athletics.
“We now will have our own home court advantage—a gym to call our own. I’m over the top about that!”
“We’re all delighted and feel very blessed to be a part of the next chapter for St. Joseph Catholic School,” she said.
TIMELINE OF ST. JOSEPH SCHOOL, ATHENS
1913: Church and rectory constructed.
1949: School opens with 35 students in first through sixth grade on the ground floor of the rectory. The teachers are Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the same congregation as staffs St. Mary’s Hospital.
1954: Students number 170 as the school expands to seventh grade.
1969: Some 300 students attend the school during its 20th anniversary year. Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, now administer the school.
1984: A new school building is built on Prince Avenue and welcomes 400 students.
2001: New classrooms and office space are constructed with the arrival of modular middle-school classrooms.
2005: Lay people assume the school administration as the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, withdraw.
2006: The effort to build the new campus on Epps Bridge Parkway gets underway.
2012: Students celebrate moving into the new school building.