Ater more than 100 years at its North Shepherd Street location in the Museum District, Benedictine College Preparatory will open in Goochland County on Sept. 3. The move will allow the school to expand course offerings and integrate academic and athletic facilities.
Benedictine has deep ties to Richmond — ask any alum, and he can probably rattle off a list of brothers, cousins and grandparents who also attended, and a staircase at the school bears each graduate's signature and is a testament to the school's rich traditions.
A group of Benedictine monks from the Belmont Abbey in North Carolina opened the school under the name Benedictine College in 1911. Seeking to instill discipline, faith and scholarship, the monks decided to blend parochial and military education models.
Headmaster Jesse Grapes, and many supporters of the school's move, say that the school's legacy doesn't lie in its physical building, but rather in its school's rigorous academic and theological traditions. "It's like the house you grew up in. You still love your parents, but you're going to miss that house," says Grapes. "I think we've overcome those difficulties because alums and supporters see the opportunity that current and future students will now receive."
Benedictine announced its decision to move from the Museum District to the 50-acre Mary Mother of the Church Abbey in Goochland County in early 2011. The Abbey, which opened in 1960 as St. John Vianny High School Seminary, was home to a small number of practicing Benedictine monks, Benedictine's auditorium and its athletic facilities.
To prepare for the move, extensive renovations were done to the Abbey, including the installation of a new HVAC system, networking infrastructure and fixtures. Parking spaces and turning lanes were also added to accommodate extra traffic.
The newly renovated academic building at the Abbey boasts more than 40 classrooms, including five science labs, a dedicated wing for the arts and new computer labs. In contrast, the Shepherd Street campus had 21 classrooms. David Gallagher, a Benedictine Board of Education director and father of a rising senior, says the new building will allow the school to add classes such as AP computer science and other advanced courses. "In order to get into places like U.Va., Wake Forest or Princeton, you need to take classes like AP Calculus. When you only have 21 [classrooms], you don't have room to accommodate these needs," Gallagher says. "Moving is going to allow us to stay on the cutting edge."
Benedictine's alumni have competed in NFL Super Bowls, NBA Finals and NCAA football and basketball championships. With 80 percent of their 275 cadets participating in at least one sport, consolidating the school's academic and athletic facilities into a single campus was another compelling reason for the move. By eliminating the 30-mile commute from Shepherd Street to Goochland, the school saves money transporting athletes after school and enables students who need extra help to receive tutoring during the time that would otherwise be spent on the road.
The move, originally announced in 2011, wasn't without controversy. After the school announced it planned to sell the Shepherd Street building to the neighboring Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, some close to the school claimed Benedictine was suffering at the hands of the monks of Benedictine Society of Virginia and felt that the Benedictine Society wanted to sell the building to help their own struggling finances.
"I think it was a breach of trust that [the administration] tried to carry on with that plan without first consulting the school's community," says Pat McSweeney, an alum and Powhatan lawyer opposed to the move.
The Catholic Diocese of Richmond ultimately bought the building for $6 million. Headmaster Grapes called the sale a "win-win" for both the school and the Diocese, as the building will stay in possession of the Catholic community, while giving Benedictine more cash on hand to pay off $2.5 million of debt, which accumulated from cash shortfalls and the previous construction of the Goochland athletic fields. The school used another $2.7 million from the sale to cover expenses related to the move, including the renovation of the Abbey and the construction of the new parking areas and turning lanes. Annette Parsons, the diocese's chief educational administrator, says the building will serve as the site for a new Catholic middle school with a target opening for fall of 2014.
Benedictine experienced further delays when Goochland residents raised concerns about increased traffic in the area, and problems relating to sewage and drainage infrastructure and noise, according to an April 4 Richmond Time-Dispatch article. The same article also reported that county officials sent a letter to the school early in March that detailed violations related to the move, including miscommunication with county officials, premature staff relocation and unsafe construction sites. Grapes says the problems with the county have been resolved, and the move is currently on track for the fall term.
Some alumni and parents also expressed worry that the location will cause the school to lose ties with its sister high school, Saint Gertrude, located on Stuart Avenue, just two blocks away from the Shepherd Street campus. Benedictine students participate in dances, social events and theater productions with Saint Gertrude. "The school was built and supported by the larger Richmond community," says McSweeney. "By removing the school from that area, the relationships with Saint Gertrude, the parish [at Saint Benedict Catholic Church] and the area as a whole are definitely going to suffer."
However, rising senior Andrew Gallagher says he and many of his fellow students aren't worried about the future of Benedictine's relationship with Saint Gertrude. "Even when we're in Goochland, we'll still have dances, and I'm sure they'll come out to all our football games."
The school also plans to implement a morning shuttle service that would operate at both Benedictine and Saint Gertrude to make it easier for families that have students attending both institutions, or for those who live close to the Museum District.
Benedictine opened its doors to alumni and parents on May 30 for a final reception and walk through the school. Andrew Gallagher described the mood as bittersweet. "It's a sad moment because Shepherd Street has so many memories, but the move is going to give us so many more opportunities. I think most of the students are looking forward to start at the Abbey, and it's going to allow the school to continue to be successful."