A cacophony of musical sounds, bolstered by enthusiasm from 73 band members, echoed throughout the nave of the chapel at St. Lawrence High School Seminary.Trumpet player Marcelino Jean, a freshman from Chicago, practices with the St. Lawrence High School Seminary band recently. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

A year after an arson fire destroyed the historic St. Joseph Hall and an adjacent chapel, both built in 1873 atop a hill in Mount Calvary overlooking a region known as the Holy Land east of Fond du Lac, musicians have returned after the blaze destroyed the band room and all the instruments.

“It feels like a fresh beginning. I think the fire motivated the band students to play better than they ever did,” said Danny Matthew, 17, a senior from St. Francis. “In my four years of school here, this is the biggest band and the best the band has ever sounded. Even though I initially hated the fire, in the end it has helped us.”

The music department will eventually move to nearby St. Thomas Hall as part of an overall reorganization and expansion of the campus, said Capuchin Fr. John Holly, St. Lawrence president

Construction is expected to begin this spring on a 29,000-square-foot, multi-story building to replace St. Joseph Hall, Fr. Holly said.

John O’Neil, a string bass player and a junior from Chicago, concentrates on his music during a practice session in the band’s makeshift quarters. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)“We recently blessed the ground the building will be on. That was our groundbreaking,” he said.

C.D. Smith Construction Services of Fond du Lac has been selected as the general contractor and official groundbreaking is projected to begin next week. 

The building will include a large number of classrooms, science facilities, space for spiritual direction, recruitment and other offices.

“It’s vital space we need on our campus,” Fr. Holly said. “The past year gave us the support to re-look at the campus and decide what we need to do with the new building and other buildings,” Holly said.

In addition to the reconstruction of St. Joseph Hall, the school is finishing two other major projects – a $5 million renovation of the freshman/sophomore dorm and a $10 million renovation of the junior dorm.

“The community has been very supportive of us since the day of the fire,” Fr. Holly said. “They wanted to make sure we would rebuild and our music continue. Everything has been very positive. Our donors have been very positive and inquisitive.”

The front door for St. Joseph Hall is anticipated to include the names of all donors for the past 100 years.

Gathering the names might seem a daunting task, but music director John Ahlstrom faces a much more daunting, likely impossible task – recreating hundreds of musical scores written especially for St. Lawrence by generations of Capuchin friars who have occupied and taught at the school, Ahlstrom said.

“We have pretty well replaced the instruments lost in the fire. The bigger part of our problem is replacing music lost in the fire. A lot of the music we lost is no longer in print,” Ahlstrom said. “Much of the music the friars wrote no longer exists and many of those friars are no longer with us. That’s just something we can’t replace.”

Ahlstrom said he spent last summer gathering instruments from generous donors.

“Now I am going to be replacing music and continue replacing music until I retire. And whomever comes after me will be replacing music for a while,” Ahlstrom said. 

He praised the band students for rebounding from the fire.

“Our kids are very resilient and adaptable,” Ahlstrom said. 

Nineteen band students recently qualified for the state solo and ensemble competition. A similar number qualified in 2014, despite almost missing the contest when the fire destroyed their instruments and music.  

“We had a lot of students who felt a profound loss in last year’s fire, not only because they lost their music, but lost their own personal instruments,” Ahlstrom said. “It meant an awful lot to borrow enough music and instruments to get the band up and running.”

Fr. Holly said the resurgence of the band, plus the ongoing renovation to campus buildings and the reconstruction of St. Joseph Hall, is meant to send a message to parents, students, donors and the community in general.

“We are planning for tomorrow and trying to make our facilities up to date so everyone can feel the students are in a safe environment,” he said.