By Dee Goerge
The June 6 blessing and groundbreaking ceremony, which took just minutes in Perham on the block owned by St. Henry’s Church, was the culmination of six years of prayer, planning and pledges by parishioners dedicated to investing in their children’s education and the life of the church.
Despite going through a pandemic and during a time when many private schools struggle to continue, St. Henry’s Area School is building a new school. The 25,600-square-foot plan includes spaces for all the members of St. Henry’s Church as well as parishioners in its ACC — Holy Cross, Butler; Sacred Heart, Dent; and St. Lawrence, Rush Lake.
“New schools are not being built every day in the diocese or even in the country. And, as we all know, well-formed children are the future of our Church,” said Deacon Randy Altstadt, parish business manager.
Currently, 138 students attend pre-K through sixth-grade classes in the old three-story school and a separate building for pre-K. Principal Jason Smith said that with children coming from six area parishes, plus non-Catholic students, numbers have increased and remained stable since he became principal 12 years ago, when there were 85 students. The challenge has been the building.
“The school was built in 1916, and it’s starting to implode — the plumbing, electrical, everything is dated,” Smith said. “We looked into remodeling, but to get it to code would cost $1 million more than new.”
A 2015 survey verified that parishioners’ priorities included adding a gathering space and updating the school. So members did the most important thing first. A prayer committee formed for six months. In the end, they came up with a “Led by the Light” campaign to raise funds for a new school that includes spaces the parish can use.
“Our current school served us well for over 100 years, and we want to provide that for the next generation,” said Father Matthew Kuhn.
Perham is booming, economically with several successful industries and population-wise, he said. That’s led to a couple dozen families each year becoming members and adding to a congregation that is blessed with many children. The growth in numbers has made the need for more room apparent — including a large gathering space for parishioners.
By the end of this May, $7.1 million was pledged, kicked off a few years ago by a large anonymous donation and supported by more than half of the 600 families who are part of St. Henry Church. Other members in the ACC also made pledges as well as area businesses and organizations.
“The adoration chapel is a selling point for quite a few people,” Smith noted.
“The chapel is front and center,” Father Kuhn emphasized. “My desire has been for an adoration space. We have seen tremendous fruits.”
Adoration became very important during the 2020 pandemic, and the plan is to have 24-7 adoration with the new chapel. It will be located in the space that connects the school to the church.
Parishioners will benefit from the full-size gym that doubles as a large gathering space for church events, funerals and weddings. The gym can also be rented out for sporting and other events.
As a principal, Smith appreciates the functionality of the one-story layout. It’s handicapped-accessible and will be wired for technology including smart boards in the classrooms. There will be a kitchen, and a media/music room. And, especially important to him, it will be easier to keep students and staff safe with a secure door monitoring system.
“I think it’s been amazing that we will go forward, even in the midst of the pandemic,” Deacon Altstadt said.
They were just $400,000 short of the estimated $7.5 million cost when bids were opened in late May. Bids came in higher than anticipated due to increased material costs, so plans will be adjusted for parts of the project to be completed later.
There have been many setbacks over the years, Father Kuhn noted, but supporters and “last-minute angel donors” made it happen.
“We’ve been praying. We set the tone and we gave people a light and followed where the Holy Spirit was leading,” he said. “We are really excited, and the diocese is looking for this to be a bright shining star.”
Construction should begin around July 1. The goal is to be finished by the beginning of the 2022 school year. The old school will be torn down and that area will be turned into a parking lot.
For more information about St. Henry’s Area School, check out www.parishfaith.com.