FOND DU LAC — Those involved seem to agree: it was a long time coming, but well worth the wait.
On the third weekend in August, St. Mary’s Springs Academy in Fond du Lac unveiled the fruits of its $26 million Second Century capital campaign — 100,000 square feet of additional educational, administrative and worship space that will bring the institution’s middle and elementary school under the same roof as its high school.
SMSA president Kelly Norton said more than 2,000 people turned out on Sunday, Aug. 21, for the ribbon-cutting event and tours of the school.
“There’s just an energy in the building,” she told the Catholic Herald the day after the grand opening. “You can already feel it. There’s a real sense of camaraderie. There’s a real sense of support, family and unity.”
Other festivities during the weekend included a staff-only Friday evening Vespers service in the new Our Lady of the Ledge Chapel, dedicated the following day by the school’s priest-designate, Fr. Ryan Pruess, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac.
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Milwaukee Archdiocese and a member of the SMSA board of directors, described the mood of the school community as “jubilant.”
“People were speechless. There were many tears,” said Cepelka, a 1965 graduate of SMSA. “This speaks to the long-term viability of St. Mary’s Springs. It really is a testament to the faith of the people of Fond du Lac and the surrounding area.”
Campaign mixes old with the new
The Second Century Capital Campaign was launched in August 2012 with a goal of $21 million. It was the largest fundraising effort in the history of the school, founded in 1909 by the Sisters of St. Agnes as a boarding school for girls.
“This has not been a streamlined process,” said Cepelka, who has served on the board for seven years. “I think there were 27 different renditions of the project, and many times at the board level we were asked to consider the impact of various aspects of the project.”
To clear the way for the construction, the former administration building and its landmark bell tower were razed in 2013. Built in 1928 as the SMSA high school and referred to as “Old Main,” the building had been unused since 2000. Since 1970, the high school has been housed in a new building on the same grounds.
Repurposing or refurbishing the Old Main hall was deemed not to be feasible, said Norton, and more room was needed to bring the elementary and middle schools onto the same campus as the high school.
In 1992, the Fond du Lac parish grade schools collaborated to form FACES (Fond du Lac Area Catholic Education System) and in 2008 came under the umbrella of SMSA, expanding the academy’s instruction to elementary and middle school. Since that time, the K-8 classrooms have been housed in the old St. Joseph and St. Mary schools, with Holy Family Parish paying the operational expenses of the spaces.
Gathering the full operation of SMSA on one site would bring the educational and spiritual mission “full circle,” said Norton, who noted the academy’s theme for the 2016-2017 school year is “strength as one.”
“What it means for us administratively is better utilization of resources, the ability to have our community all under one roof for prayer, which is really important for our culture,” she said. There is also increased opportunity for older students to mentor younger students, she added.
But losing Old Main and its eight-story bell tower that rose majestically over the side of the Niagara Escarpment was a tough blow for school families and alumni.
“It was really a symbol of Catholic education for the whole region because you could see it from the highway. It was a very emotional experience for both present Fond du Lac residents and for alumni to see the necessary demolition of that tower,” said Cepelka.
“People were very, very passionate about that, had a lot of stories about when they were students here and what they recall about the tower,” Norton agreed. “When that building came down there was a real sense of angst among the alumni.”
So when the school announced its Bring it Back Home campaign, an effort to construct a replica tower that would incorporate elements salvaged from Old Main, “that really was a bridge between the past and the future,” said Cepelka.
The replica tower is called the Dorothy Klumpyan Tower after the mother of major donor Dawn Colwin, a 1973 SMSA graduate. Colwin and her husband Joe agreed to match all gifts to construct the shorter tower, which features some fixtures salvaged from the Old Main tower. It was the Bring it Back Home campaign that inspired a flurry of nostalgia-driven alumni participation, said Norton.
“Classes each designated a class agent who was responsible for igniting enthusiasm around the campaign. We saw a lot of new donors,” she said. The campaign raised $513,000.
Chapel bears unique name
The new school chapel also provided an opportunity for the SMSA community to pay homage to its past while building – literally – upon its future.
Given the unique name of Our Lady of the Ledge Chapel, a designation that required the approval of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, the worship space “has incorporated the best of the past and the rural nature of the surrounding area … but also speaks to the future,” said Cepelka.
The chapel was financed by a $1 million “capstone” fundraiser, propelled by a $250,000 grant from the Faith in Our Future Trust-Centers of Excellence Fund, as well as by a $100,000 matching grant from Holy Family Parish.
It was a gift made possible by the sale of the St. Joseph and St. Mary school buildings, bought by Commonwealth Construction Corporation. The chapel, which features stained glass windows from the old St. Joseph Church, was designed by liturgical design consultant Joseph Wittmann.
“It was very important to us to incorporate both the old and the new,” said Norton. “People are just completely blown away because they remember those windows as their parish home.”
“It really speaks to the future, the brightness of the interior just is really a reminder both of this life and of eternity,” said Cepelka.
The SMSA of tomorrow
Now that the building is complete, Norton said the excitement over the renovations has translated into increased interest in enrollment for the school, which serves about 850 students from kindergarten through grade 12.
For the moment, though, the community is taking a break in order to celebrate their accomplishment. The Second Century campaign is thought to be the largest fundraising campaign of its kind in the history of the archdiocese, and the most expansive construction project to come before the Archdiocesan Building Commission in decades.
“This was not a project that came to be through passive approval,” said Cepelka. “There were stall moments … there were the cost factors … it was the faith of the people of Fond du Lac that kept this going. When ground was broken in April of 2015, that was a very emotional time – it was a very blustery afternoon … a very experiential reminder of kind of the fortitude of those who had built the first Springs and those who wanted to see the future Springs come to be.”
“Decades upon decades, this has been our story: of struggle and success, of question and clarity, of hope and promise,” said Norton in her address at the Aug. 21 ribbon-cutting. “A huge thank you to each of you here today for the gifts you have given, the role you have played, and the prayers you have sent to the heavens, and the constant cheering from our sidelines. This is the St. Mary Springs Academy of tomorrow, and we are so happy to have you.”