By Dustin Luca
---- — The coming year stands to be a monumental one for St. Augustine School.
In advance of its centennial next year, the private Catholic school for grades kindergarten through eight will undergo one of its largest campus upgrades ever with the construction of a 6,915-square-foot gymnasium.
School officials say the Centennial Gymnasium is a much-needed upgrade for the campus on Central Street, which serves an estimated 400 area families.
The $1.9 million project will give St. Augustine’s students their first gym in the school’s history.
Currently, the school is forced to lease a large room from the Knights of Columbus on Brook Street to accommodate gym classes and also taps Andover High School’s facilities for home basketball games.
“I’ve been here for 35 years as of September, and even before that, (the gym) has always been the piece of the package that we’re missing,” Principal Paula O’Dea said. “I think it’s been something we’ve been waiting for forever.”
The Planning Board earlier this month approved plans for the gym, solidifying the designs and leaving fundraising as the only remaining barrier before construction begins, according to Rev. Peter Gori, pastor of St. Augustine’s.
About $700,000 has been raised so far for the project, Gori said.
The gym will be built on what’s now a paved area behind the school. It will be the largest addition to the school since the mid-1960s, when an entire wing was added to the building, Gori said.
O’Dea said the school has found ways over the years to live without a gym. But she said the addition of a full gym will be a huge boost for the school.
The current space at the Knights of Columbus is “just a big room that’s not adequate anymore,” O’Dea said.
“Only our grades 1 through 8 travel down there,” she said. “The kindergarten has to do (gym) in the cafeteria.”
The leased space is also inconvenient, forcing students to walk up a portion of Central Street and then down about half of Brook Street to attend physical education classes. The trip has become a regular part of life at the school, O’Dea said. However, it also represents a “growing risk every day” for students, with up to 120 of them making the trek daily, Pastor Peter Gori said.
With its own gym, St. Augustine’s also will be able to host after-school clubs and evening activities in the space as well as play its home games within the Merrimack Valley Catholic Basketball League, according to O’Dea.
The project’s official groundbreaking is targeted for July, Gori said, and the work will take about eight months to complete.
To proceed with the project, the parish last December paid $675,000 to purchase property to the south of the school The .663-acre lot contains a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home, Gori said.
For now, the parish plans on leasing the house for residential use as it moves forward with the gym construction, according to Gori. While the future plans for the house following the construction have not yet been determined, Gori said school officials are dreaming of the possibilities.
“One of our long-range plans is to bring the early-education program onto the main campus,” he said. “Right now, that’s housed in two halls below St. Augustine’s Church on Essex Street.”
The parish also plans to update its staff parking, which currently consists of 20 parallel parking spaces to the back of the school, abutting the residential property it now owns, Gori said.
With a little bit of cash in the project dedicated to parking, the school will expand the area to roughly 40 horizontal spaces, according to Gori.
On the fundraising front, school officials plan to reach out to alumni for contributions while also spreading the word to them about the St. Augustine’s upcoming anniversary.
“(We’re) trying to tie it all in together with the centennial,” O’Dea said. “We’re working slowly to get our alumni database up to par so we can start inviting them for the centennial happenings.”
Gori said the school eventually hopes to cover the remainder of costs with a loan from the Archdiocese.
“They’ve been watching the fundraising as it has been going on, and they’re pleased with what they see because it’s an indication of the strong, enthusiastic support there is here for the project,” he said.