By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2022
FAYETTEVILLE–Smiling teachers and a new entrance decorated with inflatable air dancers and colorful balloons welcomed new students to St. Mary’s Academy.
After more than a year of preparations, the first Archdiocese of Atlanta-sponsored pre-K-12 school began its inaugural school year on Monday, Aug. 8.
Parents took first-day-of-school photos with their children. Staff greeted students and families with encouraging words. Bill Schmitz, athletic director for the Fayetteville school, kept the mood festive for younger students by wearing a Donald Duck hat.
The first day of school for St. Mary’s Academy is such a blessing, said Hal Plummer, superintendent of schools for the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“It’s just a lot of excitement,” he said.
St. Mary’s Academy is a consolidation of Our Lady of Victory School, Tyrone, and Our Lady of Mercy High School, which both closed due to longstanding enrollment challenges. The new school is located on the former Our Lady of Mercy campus in Fayetteville, south of Atlanta.
“Preparing for a new school to open has more layers than I realized a year and a half ago, and it requires the time and energy of many people,” said JoAnn McPherson, principal of St. Mary’s Academy. McPherson was principal of Our Lady of Mercy High School last year and served as its assistant principal for 20 years.
“While I was not surprised by the dedication of all of the people involved, I certainly experienced a great deal of gratitude for their time and good work,” she said.
There are 317 students enrolled at St. Mary’s Academy, with additional students awaiting testing and admission decisions. About 39% of students previously attended Our Lady of Mercy and around 27% of the student body went to Our Lady of Victory last school year.
Margaret Quartey was excited for her first day as a senior. A native of Liberia, Quartey attended Catholic school in her home country before coming to the United States in 2019. She came to Our Lady of Mercy as a sophomore.
“I look forward to helping mentor the younger kids and having a successful school year,” she said.
This year, Quartey’s extracurricular activities include golf, choir, the respect life ministry and being a school ambassador, giving school tours to potential students.
I hope the students enjoy St. Mary’s Academy, said Quartey.
“I know I’m gonna love it. So I hope other kids love it and they can be positive and have a great school spirit,” she said.
The bobcat remains the school mascot from Our Lady of Mercy, but is now accompanied by the new St. Mary’s Academy logo and school name throughout the halls and gathering spaces.
Construction for St. Mary’s Academy began in 2021 and was a nearly $7 million renovation. It was managed by Catholic Construction Services of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Early projects included painting school buses and adding interior storage space. The football field was replaced with synthetic turf, a safer option for student-athletes playing football and soccer.
Lower school construction included a separate entrance for pick-up and drop-off of students with a sidewalk and two playground areas. Overall improvements included landscaping, LED light bulbs, new flooring, plumbing upgrades, new access doors, updating the roof and a new HVAC system.
The new Center for Innovation includes the media center, collaborative workspaces, conference room and innovative learning labs that focus on the school’s STEM program, which incorporates science, technology, engineering and math.
While there were some construction delays, all updates are expected to be completed by mid-September, weather permitting, said Randy Hood, senior program manager for Catholic Construction Services.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony on Aug. 30, Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., recalled being at the groundbreaking ceremony for Our Lady of Mercy more than 20 years ago while he served as pastor at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro.
“It’s an honor for me to be here, remembering those days as I would drive by to see the progress of the building and then to be here during many years when the school was in operation,” said Archbishop Hartmayer.
The archbishop remarked that Catholic education is a gift.
“We are so proud to be able to gather here today to open up a new reality on the south side of Atlanta,” he said.
A foundation of faith
Parents have been enthused about having their younger and older children attending the same school, said Sandra Pinal-Zapata, a lower school teacher’s aide at St. Mary’s Academy.
She also has a daughter attending St. Mary’s, seventh-grader Sandra. Her oldest daughter, Berenice, attended Our Lady of Victory School while Pinal-Zapata worked as an aide and front office receptionist there. Berenice graduated from Our Lady of Mercy in 2021.
“I have enjoyed having my daughters at the same school where I work,” she said.
The family attends San Felipe de Jesús Mission in Forest Park.
With St. Mary’s offering dual enrollment for high school students, Pinal-Zapata looks forward to her daughter having that opportunity in a few years.
Due to a shortage of priests, full time chaplains were removed from Catholic high schools beginning this year. In light of this circumstance, Father Urey Mark has already made plans to celebrate Mass at St. Mary’s Academy once a month. He is Quartey’s uncle.
The priest understands the importance of pre-K-grade 12 Catholic schools, having attended a similar one, Cathedral Catholic School in Liberia.
“One of the best ways to be of support is to be able to celebrate the Eucharist,” said Father Mark, chaplain and director of Lyke House at the Atlanta University Center, which serves Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Georgia State University.
Father Mark hopes that by building the relationship with St. Mary’s students and local college campus ministries, it will make their transition “easier and smoother.” He also prays that the newest archdiocesan school will create a family and grow in spiritual formation.
“Our school theme is ‘Magnify,’” said Christine Krabel, middle-division religion teacher at St. Mary’s Academy. “I hope that everything we do—whether it pertains to spirituality or academics or sports or clubs—we humbly magnify the Lord.”
Krabel hopes her own children who are students at St. Mary’s will be “well-informed in their faith and have a deep abiding love for God.”
She is the mother of high school freshman Molly and fourth-grader Ben. The Krabel family attends Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City.
“I know (Molly and Ben) will be loved and cherished as children of God within these walls, and I pray that this knowledge will be the foundation that guides them throughout their lives,” said Krabel.
Coming together to create a school identity and providing an excellent Catholic education are the main goals this school year for McPherson. With a larger student population, she looks forward to “seeing the entire student body together at Mass for the first time and seeing our high school students volunteering to help younger students.”
Plummer hopes faculty, staff and students of St. Mary’s Academy have a positive experience this school year.
“While there are a lot of alternatives to Catholic school education, there are no substitutes because we prepare the whole child—spirit, mind and body,” he said. The objective is for students to be “good citizens of the world and the world to come.”