By Bill Brewer
St. Joseph School is marking its continued growth with the opening of a new wing that will serve middle-school students.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated Mass at the North Knoxville school Sept. 21 and blessed the addition that opened in August with the new school year.
Joining Bishop Stika for the dedication and blessing were Father Chris Michelson, pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish; Father John Dowling, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish; and Father Ron Franco, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Knoxville, also attended as did a number of special guests, including former St. Joseph faculty members, school board members, financial supporters, and members of the construction team.
In the first phase of the wing completed in 2015, a new library, technology lab, and video studio were built. The just-finished second half of the project that completes the wing adds three new middle school classrooms for science, math, and history as well as full bathrooms.
St. Joseph principal Andy Zengel said the existing technology lab was converted to a religion/language arts classroom now that the middle school has technology integrated throughout the curriculum with each of the 80 students enrolled in grades six through eight having access to Chromebooks.
“The new middle-school wing is an investment in our children’s future. It will help prepare them for a life of holiness and for continuing their education at Knoxville Catholic High School and beyond,” Mr. Zengel said.
In his homily to the students during an all-school Mass on Sept. 21, Bishop Stika reminded them that St. Joseph is his favorite saint, which means St. Joseph School is one of his favorite places to visit.
The bishop recalled as a child building small structures with toy erector sets or Lincoln Logs and asked them if they ever did the same with Lego toys.
“I’m always excited to come to St. Joseph. One reason is that every time I come here it seems like there is a new building or the renovation of a building,” he said. “Do we build these buildings because they look nice? Why do we build the buildings?”
One young student replied that the middle-school expansion was built to “get rid of the older students.”
After the unexpected answer and much laughing, Bishop Stika said, “Jesus is our foundation, and we build upon Him. That is the beauty of St. Joseph School. You are spreading out and you’re growing. You have more students this year than you did last year.”
Following Mass, Bishop Stika blessed the addition, walking through it room by room sprinkling holy water as students, faculty, and special guests gathered to take part.
“We are all grateful for the leadership of your principal, Andy Zengel, for Father Chris Michelson, and all the people on the committee working with them to make this place better, bigger, and more of a place for education,” said Bishop Stika, who thanked Sister Mary Marta for her leadership and noted that the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation also was instrumental in funding the St. Joseph expansion.
Father Michelson, who also serves as St. Joseph School president, said the new wing represents growth in the St. Joseph community, adding that seven years ago the average class size was 14 and now that number is 28.
“There has been a great energy in the St. Joseph community. Our parents are thrilled and excited. Any time you build something there is a sense of energy,” Father Michelson said. “This growth has doubled the size of our middle school. I think the parents see that this will better prepare their children for high school. We work very closely with Knoxville Catholic High School to help the kids transition seamlessly to high school. This gives our students the resources they need to prepare them for high school, especially in science, math, and technology.”
Father Michelson, who noted that enrollment at St. Joseph has jumped from 170 students to 240 over the past seven years, credited supporters who made the $520,000 expansion possible.
“We’ve had tremendous financial support. Through the Home Campaign, this new building had 100 percent funding from 12 donors, who gave everything we needed. Parents provided all the furnishings we needed for the classrooms. We said all along we weren’t going to build this building unless it was 100 percent paid for because St. Joseph can’t afford debt. From day one it was 100 percent paid for,” the St. Albert the Great Parish pastor said.
Sister Mary Marta pointed out that Mr. Zengel and Father Michelson have been effective in directing St. Joseph in recent years. The school, which opened in 1963, added a new gym in 2010 and also has added pre-K education.
“With Andy and Father Chris leading St. Joseph, they are a good team. And the school has grown since they’ve been there,” she said. “The new wing really does create dedicated space for our middle school students and separate space for our younger grades.”
Father Dowling agreed that the new middle-school wing is an unmistakable indicator of the school community’s vibrancy. “It is a sign of growth. At Holy Ghost, we pray that this new building be a sign of growth and that this growth continues. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Father Dowling cited Mr. Zengel’s work in strengthening the school’s mission to provide a quality Catholic education and prepare scholars, leaders, and saints.
Mr. Zengel said he and the school community are grateful to all those who have supported St. Joseph through the years and continue to support the school.
“It was wonderful to see all the builders present at the dedication— our bishop and pastors, benefactors and architects, veteran teachers and administrators, and our parents and staff—all those who have tirelessly built St. Joseph School over the years and continue to support our mission. St. Joseph exists for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Our growth is the result of our entire community supporting that mission,” Mr. Zengel said.