A building that was 22 years in the making will serve KCHS as well as the community at large
By Bill Brewer
Knoxville Catholic High School’s new 375-seat auditorium, 22 years in the making and just over a year under construction, was dedicated April 25 and hosted its first live performances to the delight of students, parents, faculty, and benefactors who have anxiously awaited an opening night.
Bishop Richard F. Stika blessed the St. Gregory the Great Auditorium, with Father Chris Michelson delivering the opening prayer and KCHS chaplain Father Christopher Floersh giving the dedication prayer. Father Michelson is pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish and serves as chairman of the KCHS board of trustees and as a special consultant to the school. They were joined by other Diocese of Knoxville priests, including former KCHS principal Monsignor Patrick Garrity, and Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish.
Completion of the auditorium was just in time for the high school theater and music department production of “The Music Man” musical, with public performances given the weekend of April 30.
But the first public performances came during the dedication by members of the KCHS choir and band, along with a solo by sophomore singer Madison Mounts.
KCHS president Dickie Sompayrac emceed the dedication and welcomed those on hand to be among the first to see the $5 million facility. In addition to Bishop Stika, schools superintendent Sedonna Prater, and the KCHS students, staff, and board of trustees, he thanked the donors who made the project possible, such as lead benefactors John and Sondra Faris, Mike and Carol Connor, and Bob and Margaret Petrone. Mr. Petrone and Mr. and Mrs. Connor are KCHS graduates, and Mr. Faris’ four sons graduated from the high school.
Mr. Sompayrac also thanked Rocky and Mary Ann Smith, Julia Schriver, Jon Nix, Craig and Katie Witsoe, Tom and Mindy Coulter, Dorman Blaine, and Patricia and Gino Zanolli, for whom the auditorium green room is named as well as Johnson Architecture and Rouse Construction, who were the lead architect and contractor on the project.
“We’re so excited to be here to dedicate St. Gregory the Great Auditorium. This has been a long time coming. Welcome to Faris Theater. It’s hard to believe, but the first blueprints for this building were drawn up in 2010, so it really has been a long time coming,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
“We have so many donors here tonight, and I just want to say thank you. You’re here because you have a vested interest. You’ve been a student here, or you’ve had a student here, or you’re a donor. I just want to thank you for making this a reality,” Mr. Sompayrac continued. “This building is going to get used, and it’s going to get used a lot. And our kids are going to benefit. That’s what it’s about.”
Mr. Sompayrac reserved a special thank-you for Ben and Maureen Birkel, parents of Megan Birkel, a KCHS student for whom the auditorium stage is named. Megan was in the class of 2005 and was killed in a tragic car accident midway through her senior year. She was active in the school’s theater program at the time.
Mr. and Mrs. Birkel were visibly pleased with the fully appointed auditorium and grateful for Mr. Sompayrac’s acknowledgment of their daughter and for the naming of the stage after her.
“What the Coulters did, what the entire Catholic community did, and how much they remember Megan for this long, it’s great. It’s way more than I can even accept. It’s way above and beyond. It’s just great to come back here and see that and feel that,” Mr. Birkel said.
“There are so many things about losing a child, but one of the worst things is you think she’s going to be forgotten. The kids who are here now weren’t even born when Megan died. And they put her name up on the plaque for all these kids to see. She’s not being forgotten. We don’t have very many joyful days; she was our only child. But today is definitely a joyful day. And we’re so grateful,” Mrs. Birkel added.
Bishop Stika echoed Mr. Sompayrac’s gratitude to all those who made the auditorium possible and read a quote from St. Gregory the Great, who lived in the seventh century:
“‘You don’t climb a mountain in leaps and bounds. But you take it slowly to get to the top.’ Isn’t that what’s happening here? Step by step, the buildings and facilities, and now this beautiful auditorium, carry us into the future. All the generations that follow will be touched in one way or another because of your donations, your prayers, your assistance in whatever way that might be. I think Pope Gregory would be well pleased for having this auditorium named after him,” the bishop said.
Construction on the auditorium began in March 2021 on greenspace in front of the school between the main entrance and the separate two-story classroom “B” building. Among its features, in addition to the ample seating, are:
- A stage that is 55 feet wide by 40 feet deep;
- A 1,385-square-foot scene shop;
- An audio-video production suite;
- A 4,000-square-foot lobby;
- An 871-square-foot green room;
- Full theatrical lighting;
- Full accessibility.
KCHS estimates the new performing-arts center will draw more than 10,000 visitors to KCHS annually and will be operational year-round. It will host plays, musicals, concerts, ceremonies, guidance nights, honor society inductions, Irish Media Network productions, open houses, diocesan and foundation school events, and other activities.
Davis Bodie, KCHS class of 2006, who is a former football standout and performer in the school’s theater program, was on hand for the dedication.
Mr. Bodie was appreciative and impressed by the modern auditorium and couldn’t help but juxtapose it with the much-smaller, classroom-size performance setting he and his peers had when he was in school.
When KCHS relocated from the original Magnolia Avenue site to the present Cedar Bluff campus in 2000, theater and music performances were in an arts classroom.
KCHS supporters raised money for a new performing arts wing at the school, which was named the Megan Birkel Performing Arts Center when it opened in 2005. The wing doubled as a classroom but provided more space for performances.
However, a full-scale auditorium has always been in the plans for the high school.
“Theater started out in one of the band rooms, then we had the addition of the Megan Birkle theater in the spring of 2005. There was a makeshift stage in there, but it was still a classroom. Desks and chairs had to be moved out of the way when we rehearsed and performed,” said Mr. Bodie, who is an educator and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee.
“This is a very professional-looking setup compared to just a short while ago. Just listening to the solo and the band and choir performance, it’s leaps and bounds from what we had 15 to 20 years ago. The talk about having an auditorium has been around since the school moved here in 2000, before I was even a student,” he continued. “To see this coming to fruition finally is pretty overwhelming.”
Bishop Stika explained that although an auditorium was part of the original design of the Cedar Bluff campus, financial resources prevented it from becoming a reality until now.
“Dickie put together a good fundraising apparatus, and with some very generous donors, we have this beautiful new auditorium named for Pope Gregory. The impact this will have on the Catholic community, the school community, and the community at large will be great,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s about the kids, the young men and women, and it’s important for them to have the proper setting to develop the fine arts. More and more that is what we need.”
Father Michelson pointed out that the auditorium is already paid for through the generous giving of donors, and there will be no debt for the school or diocese and no impact on school finances or tuition.
“I was surprised it took 22 years, but we got there, and we keep moving on. I was confident it would come about, but it’s in the Holy Spirit’s time, not necessarily our timeline. My timeline would have been about 10 years ago. But that’s OK,” Father Michelson said.
He added that for large assemblies, KCHS had to use its gymnasium and has even rented off-campus venues.
He noted that KCHS is looking at ways the broader community outside of the Catholic Church can have access to the auditorium for meetings and performances.
Mr. Sompayrac is thankful a key piece of the overall campus master plan is now in place, and that students, faculty, and the community will benefit from it.
“This is a need. This is like having a basketball team and a volleyball team at a school but not having a gym. It’s a credit to all the teachers who have taught theater, chorus, and band throughout the years without having a proper venue,” the KCHS president said.
“This is just so exciting because this is going to serve so many kids here. We have close to 80 kids involved in our choral program. Theater reaches so many kids. Band reaches so many kids. It’s just so exciting to finally have a place that will be theirs,” he added.