By Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian
“And this is going to be a conference room, where we can have talks with you and your parents,” principal Julia Wharton said to the fourth-grade class from the St. John Neumann Academy in Blacksburg as they toured their new home.
The groans of dismay were the only sounds of disapproval that came from the 14 children as they walked through the 20-thousand square foot building on a sunny afternoon last month.
Like their principal and teachers, they can’t wait for classes to start this fall after more than a year of construction.
The new home for Catholic education in the New River Valley will continue to have nine grades, pre-K through eight, but have 16 classrooms, almost twice as many as in their current location. The space also includes a clinic, fine arts rooms, a student resource center and a chapel. All of the rooms, with wide corridors, flank a central multipurpose area, something the present building lacks.
“Being able to have a Christmas program and spirit week activities and book fairs and school Masses and really bring the parents back in more is really going to be a wonderful and needed addition to the school,” Wharton said. “Just growing school life in that way.”
“I like best that we get our own auditorium to do Masses,” said fourth-grader Sierra, “and that it’s a little bigger so we can get more students here.”
A program that started with 17 students in 2003 could eventually have 250. To all of these Neumann Knights, the school mascot, that’s the best thing of all.
“It has more space so more kids can come,” said Mariana after her first look inside.
“And some kids don’t get educated on their religion, so some kids can learn religion that couldn’t before,” said her classmate Anna.
The students will also have a bigger playground behind the building and a soccer field above it, all perched on an 8.5-acre campus overlooking the Ellett Valley and the main road into downtown Blacksburg.
“We knew that traditional fundraising would take too long and we needed to be able to grow since our enrollment was so limiting in the current space,” said Wharton. So the Neumann Academy board formed a limited liability company to solicit funds from groups or individuals interested in Catholic education, or just social investing. Design, site purchase, and construction added up to $4-million. Eight investors put in about half the money; the Diocese of Richmond invested the rest. All investors get a three-percent return over a 10-year period.
“Bishop DiLorenzo really wants access to Catholic education in southwest Virginia and this was a way to support that effort and he’s been great,” said Wharton. “And we knew if we had him leading the way that other investors would follow suit which is exactly what happened.”
The school is mounting a capital campaign to raise funds for the playground, furnishings and classroom technology.
“Having more space and the resources available like the science room is definitely going to bolster what we’re doing at the school,” said fourth grade teacher Brooke Fiesthumel, after she helped lead her kids through the maze of cement floors and bare, grey drywall.
One of the last rooms the students came to was the chapel. As they lined up inside, Ms. Wharton asked them to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the architect, Balzer and Associates, the Lionberger Construction team, and the investors.
Each head topped with a bright white hard hat bowed in silence inside the place where soon they and their friends and teachers can meditate before a tabernacle, or say the rosary or pray “so no one gets stressed out,” as fourth-grader Quinn put it.
As she stood on the site one cloudy afternoon a week before the class visit, Julia Wharton admitted that she’s faced some stressful moments during all this. And more are coming. Next month, they have to pack up anything they want to keep from their current building and put it in storage so the new owners can move in. Then, they’ll have to move it a second time into the new place, and hope to have everything ready for the dedication in August.
“But I believe in minor miracles,” she said.
She recalled that the contractor had once told her that if they didn’t start construction by last July, the building wouldn’t be ready by this fall. At the time, they still needed one more investor.
“I was talking to my sister-in-law and saying ‘Why does God do these things to us?’” she said. And she told me, “He does it so we learn to rely on Him.”
The last investor needed to make sure St. John Neumann Academy will have a new shining space on a hill signed up over the July 4th weekend.
(Joseph Staniunas is a freelance writer based in Roanoke.)