New St. Henry School building ready to welcome students

Construction began last July on a new building for St. Henry’s Area School in Perham. It’s the first new elementary school building in the diocese in nearly two decades, according to diocesan records.

St. Henry Area School principal Jason Smith is pictured in one of the new building’s classrooms Aug. 1. (photos by Dianne Towalski / The Central Minnesota Catholic)

As the school’s principal, Jason Smith, pointed out the features of the nearly completed school to a visitor in early August, it was easy to see the happiness on his face.

Planning began nearly seven years ago when a parent, whose daughter was a student, approached Smith about exploring the possibilities of a new school. The first step was a prayer group that, after six months, came up with a “Led by the Light” campaign to raise funds for the new building.

“The old 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.”

The original plan for the $8.375 million project was to include classes up to eighth grade with a wing for preschool. But with the rising cost of building materials, the project had to be pared down a bit, Smith said.

The new building will house grades K-6, and the preschool will remain in the old funeral home building next door, which was purchased as part of the project. Smith is anticipating close to 150 students this school year — one class for each grade and about 30 in preschool.

“This is my 15th year, and 14 years ago we had 85 kids,” he said. “We’ve almost doubled in size.”

A time capsule made by students is built into the right side of the building’s main entrance, over the cornerstone.

The classrooms — including one extra room in case it’s needed in the future — are situated around a common area with comfortable seating and natural light from a skylight above, making it easy for older and younger students to spend time together, Smith said.

The building, which is connected to the church by a doorway, also includes spaces the parish and school can both use, including a gym/fellowship hall, kitchen and adoration chapel. The fellowship hall will be available to rent for dinners, wedding receptions and other events.

“I think this is a wonderful investment in the present and future of the Catholic community in Perham,” said David Fremo, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. “It provides room and energy for growth in the mission and impact of Catholic education.”

“I think this is a wonderful investment in the present and future of the Catholic community in Perham. It provides room and energy for growth in the mission and impact of Catholic education.” — David Fremo, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. 

Other features of the new building include cubbies and hooks for students’ belongings, new desks and chairs, interactive screens in each classroom, quiet rooms and extra storage areas. Heated sidewalks at the front entrance offer added safety in the winter.

“It’ll be well worth it when the kids that come through here become the Church of the future,” Smith said. “It’s awesome that the community wanted to invest in that future. I think about 75 percent of the parish’s 650 families are contributing.”

Smith is still surprised when he thinks back that more than half of the money pledged for the project came during the pandemic.

“We are overly blessed in our community and in our parish,” he said.

Though he was not assigned to the parish when the project began, Vincentian Father George Michael, canonical administrator of St. Henry, is very supportive of the new school.

“A Catholic parish having a Catholic school creates a unique community for its families, and I strongly believe that the future of our parishes depends on Catholic education,” Father Michael said.

The students’ excitement has been growing, too, over the past year of construction. During the school year, students worked together to make a time capsule from a large PVC pipe that is now built into one of the pillars of the front entrance, near the cornerstone.

Bishop Donald Kettler is scheduled to preside at Mass and bless the new building Sept. 4.

Author: Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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