By Matt Hoffman
Billings Catholic Schools celebrated the groundbreaking of a new K-8 school on Thursday.
Piles of dirt and construction equipment already dotted the site along Colton Avenue, where school officials talked about the project’s importance to the Catholic school system.
“This groundbreaking is only possible through the faith commitment and generosity of so many people,” said Mike Heringer, who co-chairs the fundraising campaign for the school. The $18 million, 87,000-square-foot project is paid for through private funds.
The Catholic schools acquired the site in 1959.
“Back in ’59, this was way out of town,” Heringer said. “My point is that people had the vision, someday our facilities would wear out. Someday we would need to build a school.”
Currently, elementary and middle school students are spread among three schools that struggle with capacity issues.
“The new school will forever change the face of Catholic education in Billings,” said campaign co-char Rita Turley, addressing students. “It will provide a whole new learning environment for you.”
Students were bused to the site for the groundbreaking, and the Billings Catholic Central High band played.
Catholic school system President Shawn Harrington again thanked donors to the project.
“You are truly helping to shape the future of thousands of kids,” he said.
Father Jay Peterson, vicar general for the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, delivered a blessing for the project, emphasizing the importance of a foundation of faith.
The current Saint Francis Primary school on Custer Avenue has 293 students in Pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades. Saint Francis Intermediate, on Yellowstone Avenue, has 168 students in third, fourth and fifth grades. Saint Francis Upper has 198 students in grades 6 through 8 at its downtown location.
Officials previously said they wouldn’t break ground without having at least half the project’s cost in hand. Turley announced that fundraising was halfway to the $18 million goal last June. She said Thursday that the school system hopes to be debt free when the school is scheduled to open in the fall 2017.
Phase one of construction involves a finished academic wing and parking area, and a shell for a gymnasium and locker room, Turley said. The plan includes space for a 25-percent enrollment growth.
Fundraising efforts are continuing.
“We acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done,” Turley said.