'Monumental' moment: Groundbreaking at a city school

Courtesy of St. Margaret of Scotland School

Ground under six inches of snow, plus slick roads and sidewalks?

No worries. Just make a new plan, Stan.

If the fluffy precipitation made it impractical to venture outside and break ground for the new classroom building at St. Margaret of Scotland School, by golly, the dirt would come inside for the "groundbreaking," with the quotemarks figuratively supplied by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.

So, it was that a huge bowl of God's good earth rested on a stool before the altar at St. Margaret of Scotland Church after 10 a.m. Mass on March 1.

Using special spades for just such occasions, Archbishop Carlson and pastor Father Matthew O'Toole did the honors, turning the freshly blessed dirt to the cheers of the packed house. Afterward, Archbishop Carlson drew laughs by playfully acting as if he was flinging dirt toward the congregation.

Then, the best part -- at least for St. Margaret of Scotland students. With the blessing of principal Juliann Hesed, Father O'Toole canceled classes for the next day, and students reveled, clapping and shouting their approval.

Yes.

The school and parish earned the time off to reflect on what they had accomplished in just one year -- raising enough money to fund the first free-standing classroom building in the city of St. Louis in a half-century. The fund-raising campaign -- "Faith in our Future" -- started 364 days earlier, and the "ground-breaking" was three months ahead of schedule.

Other parish schools have had successful campaigns to build classrooms, gymnasiums and cafeterias in the past 50 years, but they added to existing buildings. St. Margaret of Scotland's school buildings -- circa 1918 and 1966 -- are landlocked on Castleman Avenue. The new free-standing structure will be at intersection of Shaw Boulevard and Lawrence Avenue, about a half-block from the school and sharing a parking lot.

Housing the middle school of sixth, seventh and eighth grades, the new building will give the school space to accommodate surging enrollment. Whereas the school once struggled to fill one classroom per grade, it now has two per grade, with three for preschool and kindergarten.

"We have 404 students this year, and we have 415 registered for next year," said Father O'Toole, in his fourth year as pastor. "We had 300 when I got here."

By expanding, St. Margaret is bucking the trend of declining enrollments or closings of city Catholic schools. Like growing parishes and schools in the former hinterlands of St. Charles County, growth has been fueled by an influx of young families into parish neighborhoods -- bordered by South Kingshighway on the west and as far as Tower Grove Park to the south, Forest Park Avenue to the north and Jefferson Avenue to the east.

"I had 49 baptisms last year and I went six months without a funeral," Father O'Toole said, indicating the youthfulness of parishioners.

The school also draws from outside parish boundaries. According to Father O'Toole, about 40 zip codes are represented in the student body, with parents attracted by the school's academic reputation. The U.S. Department of Education honored St. Margaret of Scotland as a national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2010.

The new building will allow the school to dedicate space for maturing middle-schoolers but within the preschool-through-eighth-grade format. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will get a taste of high school with lockers, class changes, etc., but they still will interact with primary-grade students.

"They get a chance to 'graduate' to a new building, but they'll share the (current) cafeteria with the rest of the school," Father O'Toole said.

The new middle-school building also will help St. Margaret of Scotland remain competitive in the tough St. Louis Catholic education market in which several high schools have middle schools.

Mostly, however, the new building is tangible proof that Catholic education is alive and well in the city of St. Louis.

Archbishop Carlson put it simply, calling the symbolic groundbreaking "a monumental occasion, a special time in the history of the parish."

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