The St. Gregory the Great facility is a missing link for the campus and a long-overdue project
By Bill Brewer
An auditorium that was part of the master plan for Knoxville Catholic High School when the West Knoxville campus was developed two decades ago is coming to life thanks to an “army” of supporters who say the addition’s time has come.
Bishop Richard F. Stika was joined by KCHS faculty, students, and supporters Feb. 22 to break ground on the $5 million, 13,500-square-foot St. Gregory the Great Auditorium that will serve as a dedicated venue for concerts, plays, musicals, ceremonies, and other events hosted by the high school.
Construction began in March on the auditorium, which is being built on greenspace on the front of the school between the main entrance and the separate two-story classroom “B” building. When completed in December, the auditorium will feature:
- 375 seats;
- A stage that is 55 feet wide by 40 feet deep;
- A 1,385-square-foot scene shop;
- A 4,000-square-foot lobby;
- An audio-video suite;
- An 871-square-foot green room;
- Full theatrical lighting;
- Full accessibility.
According to KCHS, Irish Media Network productions, guidance nights, honor-society inductions, and diocesan and foundational school events also will be hosted in the auditorium, which will be open for use by the community at large, too. KCHS estimates the auditorium will attract more than 10,000 visitors to the campus annually.
It will be the first dedicated auditorium in KCHS history. The original high school on Magnolia Avenue in East Knoxville was built without one.
The absence of an auditorium for two decades at the newer school has meant that performances and events were held in classrooms, the school’s indoor commons area, or the gymnasium. In 2005, the Megan Birkel Performing Arts Center was a welcome addition to the school, giving students a large classroom-sized space to display their talents.
“We’re building an auditorium, not on sandy soil, but on soil with a solid foundation, a strong foundation. This school for many years has had a strong foundation, from the previous campus to where we are today. Now, we expand this campus and this building and dedicate it to one of the great popes in the history of the Catholic Church, St. Gregory the Great,” Bishop Stika said.
“I just want to thank all of you for being here and some of our major donors, and all of the many people who have helped make this possible by whatever donation they make, including their donation of prayer for Catholic education in East Tennessee, our 10 schools, but in particular Knoxville Catholic High School. I would like to thank Dickie (Sompayrac) and Father Chris (Michelson) and all the many people who have been involved in this project,” the bishop said in remarks during the groundbreaking ceremony.
KCHS faculty, staff, and supporters agree the auditorium has been a visible missing link keeping the campus from reaching its full potential.
Modern athletics facilities have helped Fighting Irish athletes win accolades and even state championships in multiple sports, attracting new students to the campus.
Supporters believe the auditorium will have a similar impact.
“I couldn’t be happier for the many students and staff that will benefit from this awesome venue. School plays, band and choral concerts, coffee houses, prospective family open houses, athletic and academic signing days, and guidance parent nights are just a few of the many events that we will host throughout the school year,” said KCHS president Mr. Sompayrac.
Mr. Sompayrac explained that the current Blackbox Theatre space will be converted into an 1,800-squarefoot Innovation Lab that will house the school’s robotics program and allow for more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the curriculum.
“The total projected cost of these projects is right at $5 million, and we currently have more than $4 million in pledges. I would like to thank Bishop Stika for his permission to proceed with this project and all the donors who have made this important addition possible,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
According to Mr. Sompayrac, a plan has been in place for several years to get a new auditorium off the ground. But diocesan fundraising priorities had to be followed, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Father Michelson was pastor of All Saints Parish when KCHS was built adjoining All Saints. He helped lead the project to develop KCHS in West Knoxville and said an auditorium was always part of the high school master plan.
“I knew it would take a while to build, but I’m not sure I thought it would take 21 years. In God’s time, not ours,” Father Michelson said. “I am thrilled that this auditorium is becoming a reality. Our mission from day one was to meet the needs of all our students. This fulfills our original mission.”
Father Michelson, who is pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish in Knoxville and president of St. Joseph School, believes the auditorium will have a profound impact on the KCHS community.
“I know from my work at St. Joseph School that the majority of students not attending KCHS is because of the arts. They are gifted and want to develop those gifts. Now KCHS is in a position to meet those needs. I believe enrollment will continue to grow as a result of the new auditorium,” he said.
So now, the time for St. Gregory the Great Auditorium has come. The papacy of its namesake, Pope St. Gregory I, was from Sept. 3, 590, to March 12, 604. He is the patron of musicians, singers, students, and teachers. Johnson Architecture of Knoxville designed the addition, which is being built by Rouse Construction, also of Knoxville.
The auditorium is personal for Bob Petrone, Mike Connor, and John Faris, key backers of the project. Mr. Petrone and Mr. Connor are KCHS graduates, and Mr. Faris’s four sons graduated from there in recent years.
“We’ve been involved in KCHS forever. I’ve been really interested in the high school since we graduated,” said Mr. Connor, class of ’69, whose wife, Carol, parents, siblings, and children also are KCHS graduates.
As a lifelong member of the KCHS family, Mr. Connor said he is proud of the way the high school has grown and taken on a prominent role in the Knoxville community. He’s also proud of the academic and athletic success the school has achieved.
Athletic fields and courts that rival the best in the area give KCHS athletes a stage on which to compete. The school’s football and boys basketball teams have even competed on a national stage against nationally ranked opponents.
Mr. Connor, Mr. Petrone, Mr. Faris, and others agree the time has come to give students active in the arts a bigger stage.
“We don’t have a place for students to show their skills in the arts,” Mr. Connor said. “I knew we could get an auditorium built. It’s just the timing of it I wasn’t sure about. I knew there was enough enthusiasm for it.”
The three supporters credited Bishop Stika with recognizing the importance of the project.
“We’re fortunate to have his support,” Mr. Petrone said. “Our great bishop has allowed us to raise funds at what has been a difficult time.”
Mr. Petrone noted how KCHS has been a top 50 parochial school in the United States, which illustrates the success of its faculty and staff, its programs, and its students. And the school is competitive with other high schools—public and private—in the arts, academics, and athletics, as well as for students.
Knoxville Catholic’s strong spiritual foundation sets it apart from other high schools.
The new auditorium is important to maintaining a competitive advantage.
“It’s badly needed. It’s very important for the continued growth of the school,” Mr. Petrone said. “It’s very important to keep our Catholic students in our system. I’m excited about what is happening at the high school. KCHS is so well-rounded, with a strong base spiritually, academically, and athletically. You put that together and you have a great school. It takes an army to keep it successful.”
Mr. Petrone is a 1967 graduate of KCHS, and like the Connors and Farises, his and his wife Margaret’s children graduated from there.
“Hopefully our grandchildren will graduate from there. They attend Sacred Heart School. If my granddaughters have an interest in the arts, there will be a great program and facilities for them. It’s the same if they’re interested in athletics,” he said.
Mr. Faris has been a longtime supporter of KCHS programs. The school is important to him and his wife, Sondra. It is where their four sons, who were active in athletics, graduated from in recent years.
The Farises have been involved in KCHS athletics, academics, and arts projects, but they agree now is the time to get behind the auditorium project.
“The school is growing, but the one thing missing is an auditorium. There are needs we have at the school, but we need that space,” Mr. Faris said. “This is exciting. It’s exciting to be part of it. And it’s exciting to see the KCHS community get behind this.”
He agrees with Mr. Connor and Mr. Petrone that the auditorium will give more students a reason to attend KCHS.
“We realize there is much more than sports at the high school. It’s not just about sports. It’s about the whole high school community. This auditorium gives more kids a reason to come to Knoxville Catholic High School,” Mr. Faris said.