Saint Bernard opens school year with updated library, cafeteria

Montville — Heather O'Brien can't call her workplace "Beigeville" anymore.

Standing in the middle of an inviting, open library with bright red and yellow seating, workstations for students to plug in and study, and bookshelves tucked along a back wall instead of crowding and darkening the room, the Saint Bernard School librarian on Tuesday said this year's renovations excited students and parents alike.

"There are so many kids from other towns who go to school here," O'Brien said. "This library provides an opportunity for kids to collaborate. This is where it's at."

The overhaul — part of an ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign initiated by 1972 grad Maureen Donohue Hendricks — didn't stop at the library.

Workers over summer break repainted and installed new carpet, LED lighting and glass entryways in the main office, where staffer Renee Benoit said she feels "a little guilty" to work in such a modernized space before she noted that the office remained in its previous state for about half a century.

"I love it," Benoit said, noting officials expect more furniture to arrive in a couple of weeks. "It will take a little while to get used to it."

Students returning to classes on Tuesday found a cafeteria with new flooring, freshly painted yellow and light-green walls and a massive, but fitting, reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

Director of Admissions Kim Hodges noted the cafeteria also features new windows that no longer let cold air leak in — not a problem on Tuesday, when the school suspended its uniform policy due to the statewide hot weather. The school also updated the seating options in the cafeteria, with a mix of long and round tables making for "great conversations," Hodges said.

"You used to have to cram everybody there," senior Sam Davis said of the cafeteria seating he's experienced since sixth grade. Davis noted that his brother and parents attended Saint Bernard and the décor had "been the same for awhile. It's nice to have my senior year like this."

The overall renovations sparked by the five-year fundraising campaign aren't merely a facelift. But Hodges, Headmaster Don Macrino and Director of Advancement Dana Williams noted that this year's upgrades were more noticeable because they involved the library, media center, cafeteria and main office — areas students and staff visit daily.

Over the last four years, the school has built a state-of-the-art chemistry lab, revamped hallways and lockers, enhanced security and technology, including new computer workstations and wireless capability, and — at students' suggestions — upgraded the bathrooms.

The updated library is customized for the current and next generation of students, enabling them to keep their devices charged and online, video conference with other schools and teachers, and check out novels, reference books and art history books that remain popular. The school removed many books that had gathered dust on old shelves over the years, creating more open space to foster interaction while letting staff keep a better eye on students.

Hendricks four years ago challenged school officials to raise $200,000 annually for much-needed renovations. The John and Maureen Hendricks Charitable Foundation and the Diocese of Norwich has matched the donations up to $200,000 each.

"Maureen came in with a call to action and people really responded and have risen to the challenge," Williams said.

Hendricks previously said in a statement that she offered the challenge gift "because I believe in Saint Bernard. It gave me a great academic start in life and I would like future generations to reap the same benefits that I did, going forward." 

Macrino said the campaign allowed the school to address an array of critical issues — including security and structural issues — after getting feedback from teachers, maintenance crews, administrators and students. Now officials want to fine-tune and "freshen up and modernize" the school, Macrino said. He also touted previous renovations of the main lobby and, thanks to a donation from the Mohegan Tribe, new carpeting in the school auditorium.

The 2018-19 school year is the final year of the Hendricks Challenge but officials expect fundraising efforts to continue.

Macrino said officials hope "to shift our focus to tuition assistance" now that school infrastructure has received such a boost.

"We've always done it," Macrino said of funding assistance but future fundraising efforts could open doors to even more students whose families might struggle to afford tuition. "We don't want to be an exclusive community. We have a belief that we would like to offer this education to as many kids as we can."


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