By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 4, 2015
HAPEVILLE—David Ordner, wearing a white construction hard hat, stood on the grassy lawn and pointed to where woods once surrounded St. John the Evangelist School and where the convent had been for the Sisters of Mercy who taught there. He shared memories about his years spent at the school.
The class of 1967 graduate is thinking ahead now to when the construction company he founded will move its heavy equipment to the Hapeville school grounds. For him, to earn this construction contract was important.
“To get to do this job in our backyard, especially a legacy project like this, it means so much,” said Ordner, who grew up nearby but now lives in Duluth and attends St. Monica Church.
He’s licensed in 30 states, but this project is more special than most, he said.
“This is a legacy project. This is one I wanted to do,” he said, after the ceremonial groundbreaking on Aug. 27 turned over shovels of dirt.
This building project will be the first addition to the school’s campus in 14 years.
“We think it’s going to enrich every part of the school life—arts, community events, academic competitions,” said Principal Karen Vogtner. “There are so many things we can do.”
The $4.1 million building project aims to ease the space crunch at the 315-student school. It will add a multipurpose facility, convert the existing athletic building into classrooms for art and music, improve traffic flow around the school and increase parking. Lyman, Davidson, Dooley, Inc., is the architectural firm for the project.
Full gym space, facilities for arts
St. John the Evangelist School, which opened in 1954, is in its 60th year. Twice a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, the pre-K through eighth-grade facility has had a waiting list each of the last five years.
In 1988, the school gym was built. From the beginning it was smaller than a regulation-size gym, and it was made even smaller, about one-third the size of a full gym, when the school art program carved out a small classroom.
“It didn’t fit our needs, but it did until we could do something,” said Vogtner. “We’ve always had that on our long-range strategic plan.”
For art teacher Karen Rorabaugh, the new fine arts wing will allow students to stretch their artistic abilities. The eight-year teacher is excited there will be a dedicated kiln room, as the pottery oven hasn’t been used much because of space limitations.
“To have the space, to make a mess working with clay and use the kiln will be tremendous,” she said.
Students will also have service opportunities, such as hosting fundraisers for nonprofits. Bowls crafted by students could be purchased by people who have a simple meal of soup and bread. The proceeds could go to a food pantry, she said.
Students at St. John the Evangelist host their home athletic games at the nearby Hapeville recreation center. With the new facility, the goal is to invite nearby schools to the campus to collaborate on academics, science camps and sports.
There will be a performing arts stage, concession store and gym for school events. The school now relies on the church sanctuary for its programs, which can lead to unfortunate double bookings when school events and funerals collide.
“We don’t fit anywhere but the church. If we’re having a talent show, it has to be in the sacred space,” said Vogtner.
The project will also double the school’s parking spaces. This will take idling cars off residential streets, which can cause traffic snarls for neighbors.
Giving to the school ‘in a heartbeat’
The groundbreaking took place on Thursday, Aug. 27, beginning with morning Mass for students, parents and school supporters with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“God has great things in store for us through this project,” said Father Michael Onyekuru, the pastor.
He said the project will contribute to the well-rounded development of students but also parishioners and all who will use the facility.
Archbishop Gregory prayed for the protection of workers and thanked the benefactors for this “invaluable gift.”
“Bless the mind, heart and hands of those who will be involved in the construction of this facility,” he prayed. “Keep them all safe from harm.”
The property was blessed with holy water. Students later joined the archbishop in being the first to turn over the dirt; then school, civic and business leaders had their turn. Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman called the school “magic” and a part of the fabric of the local community.
Heavy equipment is scheduled to arrive in October to begin the real work. A small shrine of the Virgin Mary will be moved to a new place on the campus. Earthmovers will reshape a small hill to erect the enrichment building, expected to be ready next fall. Ordner said he would like to push the construction so eighth-graders can end their schooling in the new building.
Donors are making contributions for personal reasons. An outdoor patio for young artists is being paid for by a school parent to honor her husband who died suddenly. Vogtner and her family are donating to beautify a courtyard in honor of their parents and in-laws.
The school was built on the sacrifice of others, so now is the time for people today to support the school into its future, Vogtner said. The principal said the goal is $4.1 million, with some $2.4 million raised.
Once the new building is completed, attention will be turned to the existing gym. It will be converted into a wing for fine arts. Classrooms will be dedicated to art and music.
MaryJean Griffin, who spent 42 years at the school, 13 as its assistant principal, was the first contributor to the building campaign.
She drove four hours from Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the ceremony.
“I’d do that in a heartbeat” for the school, she said.
The school is a faith-filled place, she said. School administrators have kept the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy who served here alive, she said.
After the ceremonial shovels were tucked away, adults and youngsters, like Morgan Grier, scooped dirt into keepsake boxes handed out by the school. She’s just starting her education in kindergarten. She’ll enjoy the new facility for years.
“I do believe it’s an enriching experience, not just for the school but the community,” said her mother, Michelle Grier, of Atlanta. “It brings the school and the community together in an incredible way.”
The school began a website for the campaign: Visit http://sjegive.org/.