Years of dreaming, fundraising, and planning finally came to a head for Aquinas Catholic Community School on Wednesday. With the help of Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana and the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, the school broke ground on a more than $3 million expansion project.
Made possible by savings from Holy Martyrs Parish, and $1.9 million in donations from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, the expansion will unite the campus’ two buildings, adding additional office space, two new classrooms, and room for students with additional needs. Construction efforts are already underway, and supporters from around the community as well as Aquinas students and families all gathered to celebrate the occasion.
“It’s hard for me to put into words what this means, it’ll be transformational for our teachers,” said Lisa Gutierrez, principal of Aquinas Catholic Community School. “Usually, teachers have space and time where they can write plans, keep up with grades, or answer parent emails. These teachers didn’t have a room to themselves, they were sharing with the art teacher and the music teacher. This is going to transform their day completely.”
Since Principal Lisa Gutierrez accepted her position in 2017, Aquinas’ student population has grown from 136 to 210. Despite an eager staff, enthusiastic students and parents, and a supportive diocese – they were simply running out of room. The staff made use of halls, the church, the rectory, and any other space they could find to accommodate their students.
“We’re looking forward to housing 50 or even 100 more students here at Aquinas,” said Father Ted Mauch, Pastor of Holy Martyrs Parish. “Our scholars are the reason we’re here today. We gather together to give thanks to God because he’s given us gifts through Big Shoulders Fund and the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, the generosity of our parishioners, and the legacy of all our Catholic churches here in Merrillville.”
Father Mauch noted that the history of Catholic education in the community stretches back to the 1800s and credited the students, teachers, staff, and parents for keeping the tradition alive in such a lively, thriving school like Aquinas.
“A couple of years ago, when I was named Bishop, the very first thing I did was come here for my first school visit,” said Most Reverend Robert J. McClory, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Gary. “The joy, the love, the passion, the learning, the community, and the faith that was expressed here inspired me from the very first day. I said if Aquinas Catholic School is emblematic of what we have here in the diocese, then I’m excited to be here.”
Bill Hanna, executive director of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, spoke to the attendees and students on behalf of the White family.
“The opportunity, in this case, was to open up opportunities for more children and more families to enjoy the high-quality education and the heart of the staff at this institution,” he said. “Bruce and Beth White want to leave a legacy that’s found in each of you sitting here today, in every child that enters this school. If we’re going to make this world a better place, we’re depending on you. We’re trusting you with the future because you’re a great generation that’s going to do awesome things.”
One parent in attendance, Alisha Gaffney, was thrilled with what the expansion means for her son Darnell, who is set to enter third grade this year.
“It’s a great opportunity, they’ve been trying to build so this will get them out of the rain and they won’t be exposed to the elements,” she said. “It just means growth, and our experience here’s been wonderful. The staff is great, they love him - Darnell just finished the AAU Junior Olympics and his teacher was emailing me for updates on how he was doing so they could tell the other teachers how well he’d done.”
Gaffney and dozens of other students took part in the groundbreaking, releasing balloons as the shovels hit dirt. Dan Kozlowski, managing director for Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana, said their enthusiasm spoke to the character being cultivated at Aquinas.
“It brings everything into perspective,” he said. “Everything we do is for students, for families. It’s to provide a high level of education to those who seek it. To see the support of this school really solidifies the reasons why we’re doing this project. They want this school to survive and thrive, and that makes us want to help them even more.”
Joshua Hale, president and CEO of Big Shoulders Fund, pointed out that the groundbreaking coincided with the organization’s anniversary.
“You can’t jot that down to anything but the Holy Spirit carrying something like this forward,” he said. “We’re not only celebrating the expansion of Aquinas Catholic Community School and ensuring its continued existence as a strong community-based organization but also that more children will have access to the benefits. Growth in Catholic education, growth of a place like Aquinas so rich in history and tradition - that should be national news.”
To learn more about Big Shoulders Fund Northwest Indiana, visit bigshouldersfund.org.