According to a recent study by the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame University, the number of Catholic schools in the United States peaked at 13,292 in 1965-66. Today, that number is down to 7,094. The Notre Dame study also explored the uses of the former Catholic school buildings.
In Milwaukee, for example, one school is now an administration building for a Lutheran college and another is home to a butcher shop. The former St. Joseph School building became available in the spring of 2006 when consolidation plans were announced with the former Annunciation School building serving as the site.
“It was very unhappy news about the school, but then there was a building that was not really being utilized to its fullest intent,” said Tina Meyer, religious education director for the Quad-Parishes. “It was a matter of a vision, lots of prayer and boots on the ground. Those are the things that really came together to make this happen.”
Meyer explained that a focus on creating a space for youth outreach preceded the school consolidation. Work had started on the third floor of the building, the former convent, but was halted due to expenses to bring the space up to code, including a new sprinkler system and fire escape.
“Fr. Don (Everts, pastor of the Quad-Parishes — St. Joseph, St. Jude, St. Patrick and Annunciation) deserves credit for the vision,” said Meyer. “The thinking shifted from the youth center on the top floor to there is an entire building here. It is still St. Joseph Parish. There are still parish groups that meet here and use the building, but the overall vision was to make it for the youth.”
The first project involved the 110-seat auditorium in the school basement, which was formerly a kitchen. The Holy Grounds Café on the first floor followed through the efforts of parish member Martin Radue for his Eagle Scout project. The space not only features counter space for serving refreshments, but seating areas, board game tables, a small corner stage and a large hub cap clock designed by Fr. Everts.
“A room at a time” has served as the theme for the repurposing efforts, and Mary Radue, Martin’s mother, an art teacher, designed the color schemes for each room. The entertainment room, the third project, houses four video game stations and numerous other games including pop-a-shot basketball. Meyer also refers to the space as the “evangelization room.”
“The rooms allow us to build relationships with the youth,” she said. “Once you have relationships with them as a positive role model, then you can say to them, ‘Why don’t you come to this mission trip this summer?’ and tell them a little bit about it. When you have that space and opportunity, they are much more likely to be involved. Some people may look at the entertainment room and say ‘You are just having the kids here to play games.’ They are missing the point. We are building those relationships and showing the kids that the parish cares about them.”
Twitter and Facebook are used to share events and information with the teens. The youth center also helps to reach the young people where they are at in their lives, said Becky VanKauwenberg, youth minister for the Quad-Parishes.
“Having a place for them at the church level is super important,” she said. “It’s a very exciting space for them. The families really enjoy having that resource.”
VanKauwenberg added that the center not only serves as a bridge for inviting young people to service and other faith opportunities, but also helps them live out what they learn.
“Those experiences can really change their lives,” she said. “It’s nice to have that established foundation that they can come back to at the parish. We have opportunities to plug right back in.”
The center is used by more than parish members and youth from the Quad-Parishes. Young people from other churches and community groups are invited to attend events. West Side Youth Ministry, a collaborative effort of the parishes in the greater west Green Bay area, holds monthly events at rotating parish sites including Friday Night Live for middle school students and Connect 4, an offering for high school youth. TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) is now based at the Quad-Parishes Faith Formation Center. The space has also been rented out to other parishes for confirmation retreats and has served as the site of an annual workshop for catechists and youth volunteers from the diocese.
“Six years ago if we had six kids at our Friday Night Live event, we thought it was a success,” said Meyer. “Now we have 70 or 80 at some of our events. Some of our high school kids come back as volunteers so we have some young leaders being developed here.”
The prayer element is an essential component, added Meyer. J.O.Y. (Jesus for Our Youth) is a ministry where parish members pray for the youth and are involved in fundraisers. Adults can “take stock” in a young person, which helps to support mission trips. The teen sends a postcard from the destination to the stockholder and an appreciation event is held when the youth return. Youth liturgies are also celebrated with J.O.Y. members.
The installation of a dual projection system in the chapel will be this summer’s project. Family Masses for each grade are celebrated in the chapel, which seats 100 on chairs donated by Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Green Bay. The system will allow for the display of praise and worship music and other images.
Donations, fundraisers and volunteer hours will continue to fuel the efforts. Updating the third floor remains a goal so the space can serve as a retreat center for the diocese. Meyer is hopeful for a generous donation to support the project. She is thankful for the continuous progress.
“When a building sits empty it kind of deteriorates,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the buildings are being used and for evangelizing our youth. As the building has come along, the youth ministry has been built.”