AND THE PURCHASE OF THE lANCASTER mENNONITE sCHOOL'S hERSHEY CAMPUS
The Back Story
Three weeks ago, I had a full-page column in our parish bulletin about the possibility of purchasing the Lancaster Mennonite School two miles from our parish on Sandhill Road as an alternative to building a two-story addition to our present school. This would be a change in vision for our Centennial Project as we come closer to our 100th anniversary as a parish in 2020.
I concluded my bulletin column with the fact that while everyone I talked to—Parish Council, Finance Council, the Bishop, College of Consultors, School Board, etc.—thought it would be a great opportunity for us, Lancaster Mennonite did not accept our offer and that we were moving on with our original plan.
That is where I thought it ended. The bulletin went onto our parish website and Facebook page and the next morning Lancaster Mennonite called and said, “Can we sit down and talk?” We set up a time to talk but even before that meeting, they called us and accepted our offer.
At this point, we are in a 60-day due diligence period in which we thoroughly go over the property with a fine-tooth comb and look at all the costs involved with the property. At any time in this 60-day period, either side can pull out of the contract.
This is where we are right now.
What I want to do today is talk to you about the advantages of purchasing this property. I hope you know that I am committed to transparency as your pastor and want you to know why I and so many others are so excited about this opportunity.
I am going to talk about this possible purchase from three different perspectives:
An historical perspective
A financial perspective
And from the perspective of what our vision can be as we move into our second 100 years as a parish
I just want to let you know that this talk will be available on our website sometime this week. We sometimes miss things and misinterpret what is said. (Someone asked Sister Eileen when people started hearing about this. “Why would we move the school to Lancaster!!!” She assured them it is only two miles up the hill!)
History of Our Parish
Let’s take a brief look at the history of our parish over these past 100 years.
The original Italian immigrants began worshipping in the Press Building in 1918 as a mission of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1920 the Parish of Saint Joan of Arc was established and a church was built on Chocolate Avenue. Seven years later, a one-room school house was built behind the church. A convent was purchased and a few years later a larger school building was erected on the Chocolate Avenue site.
At a certain point, the school had grown so much that the present property on Areba Avenue was bought and the school was built here. For more than five years, the church was on Chocolate Avenue and the school up here on Areba. Next the old church was sold and our present church was built in 1961.
Every time there was a change or a move in the history of our parish, it was because of growth and new opportunities. The fact is that we have had 4 convents, 2 rectories, 3 worship spaces for Mass (including the cafeteria for 8 years) and 3 different schools.
Growth and change are signs of parish vitality and is a necessary part of life. I imagine there were a few people who were nostalgic for the way things were when change happened over our 100 year history but most people adapt and begin to recognize that you can honor what came before while at the same time look forward with hope and excitement to what is in the future.
Now let me talk about the money aspect of this. To put it bluntly, we will save millions of dollars with the purchase of the Lancaster Mennonite property. Let me lay it out for you.
Our Centennial Project, for which we are running our capital campaign, involves a two-phase project.
In Phase I, we would build a two-story, 26,000 sq. ft. addition to our present school/REP building with a basement for storage. Alongside of that, we would renovate our school cafeteria into a parish social hall. The parish social hall is, by the way, still going to be done and is around a third of the way finished already.
This first phase of the Centennial Project would cost roughly $6.5 million. We need to raise half in cash and then the diocese would lend us the rest as a loan over twenty years or so.
Phase II of the Centennial Project would be five or six years away with a complete renovation of our 75-year-old school. We are being very conservative because we don’t know what building and material costs would be years down the road, but we estimate the renovation to be –conservatively– $2 million.
So, when all is said and done, the cost to our parish for providing the space and the renovations that are desperately needed would be around $8.5 million.
We are able to get the 100,000+ sq. ft. Lancaster Mennonite School on 36 acres of Hershey real estate for $5 million! As Sister Eileen said, “We get so much more for so much less and we get it NOW!”
We will borrow an additional $500,000 dollars from the diocese for renovations needed on the building.
The fact is that we will save $3 million in buying this property.
There are other amazing financial benefits as well.
The money that we are raising in our capital campaign to just get to half the cost of our project can now be used to simply pay back the loan to the diocese. Instead of owing the diocese $3.2 million, we will be in debt to around $1.6 million. That is a lot of saving on interest!
Also, Lancaster Mennonite School is a 12-year-old state-of the-art building. It has everything that we were planning on building—and much more—and is much more energy and cost-efficient than our 75-year-old school/REP building on Areba Avenue.
I also have to let you know that there are substantial rental incomes in place with the Lancaster Mennonite School that we intend on keeping at this point. They would help greatly in garnering income for our parish. Besides that, the parish and school staff are being very creative in ways to raise money to help pay for more ministries to the parish and the community. This will help keep tuition affordable for our school families.
Finally, Phase II of our campaign goes away. The $2 million estimated to renovate our present building was necessary because we would have to get the kids back into the building at one time. Now, we can make renovations slowly over a number of years and we can do that using monies from our Capital Improvement line item from our ANNUAL budget.
Financially, we would really make out, but, that cannot be the sole consideration. We as a parish must make changes not just for the sake of making them or to save a buck, but rather because it is part of our vision of who we are as a parish, as a Church, as the Catholic Community spreading the gospel in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Let me now outline the vision of our parish in relation to the purchase of this property.
After renovations are completed, we are hoping that Saint Joan of Arc Catholic School and our Religious Education Program would start taking place at our new campus on Sandhill Road. Lots of parishes have their schools a few miles from the church.
The new campus will include a STEM Lab, a Maker-Space, rooms for all of our classes and learning support teachers. There is a large gymnasium which will help greatly with scheduling for all our CYO basketball and sports activities. We would expand our very successful Summer Camps here in the parish from one to two (or maybe even three) to help families during the summer months who are in need of childcare. I truly believe that we will raise enrollment because of all that we have to offer.
The one thing that is very exciting is that we will have a 500 seat chapel for our school and REP community in which the Blessed Sacrament will be present and will be right within the building.
Of course, this chapel will not be just for our children. Our Wednesday morning Masses for the school will continue with our parish being invited. We won’t have to have “overflow” Masses on Christmas and Easter in the gym and deal with the parking issues. (The parking is wonderful at the new site!) There is the possibility of adding a Mass on Sunday morning in the chapel on the hill.
With 36 acres, a lot can be done. Remember, this is parish property, not just for the school or REP! I have a vision of an outdoor chapel and pavilion for Catholic weddings or sunrise Easter Masses. There is a farmhouse and barn on the property that could be used for meetings or retreat days or celebrations of all kinds.
Someone even approached me with the possibility of doing a solar farm on the unused acreage in the future.
To be honest, the possibilities are only limited by our creativity!
Now, what about the present school? What would happen to that?
Well, the great thing is that unlike when we sold our church and school on Chocolate Avenue years ago, we get to keep our school building with all its many memories. It will always be ours!
The fact is that over the years, our school has grown so much that it has taken over lots of space in our parish. The school now uses Meeting Rooms A, B, and C. We have pre-school in the basement of the Parish Center and on the stage. We have a trailer for learning support and also use the hallways and closets to tutor kids. We have our Middle School in the basement. Learning an instrument takes place in the concession stand or in an open hallway.
I would suggest using the basements for much needed storage and give back to the parish the meeting rooms that were used by the school. When all that is done, we really only have 10 classrooms in our education building!
Think about how we could use that space!
The two most active organizations in the parish—the Knights of Columbus and the CCW—could each have a room.
We could have a great classroom for Adult Education.
One room could be a choir practice room.
Two or three classrooms could be divided up for smaller meeting spaces for our many prayer groups and service organizations.
We could have a room for brides.
The Areba Club can have meetings during the day and everything won’t have to revolve around the school’s schedule.
We will have a place for funeral luncheons and rental space for wedding receptions, birthday, retirement, graduation parties, etc.
We could use the gym for senior exercise and morning basketball games for adults.
We can open up space for the community for things like 12-Step programs or Weight Watchers or…whatever!
I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is to schedule space for our 62 organizations and ministries. Just ask Susan, our secretary, about trying to schedule things.
I want us to be a hub of activity here at Saint Joan of Arc—for our parishioners, for our children, for the community—to meet the spiritual, social, and service needs of those in the Hershey area.
I think the vision is a good one. How about you?
Two things are needed to make this vision a reality. One is practical and the other is the most important!
The practical one is for everybody to make a pledge to our Capital Campaign. We are doing great and I thank everyone who has already made their pledge (and if you are excited about what I am saying, you can always give a little more!). But there are lots who have not made a pledge. You will be getting new info about our shift in gear regarding our Centennial Project. Read it carefully and please make a pledge. If we do this all together, we can do amazing things.
I just want you to know that I will be glad to give tours of the Sandhill property to anyone who is interested. Give me a call and we can set up some times to show you the building.
The important thing is to pray! Pray for the success of our project, pray for the vision, pray for the future of our parish as we enter our next 100 years.
And pray for me. Most of the time I just think of myself as one of the parishioners. I know I have a special role to play as a priest, but I really do think of myself as part of the group. I think we are all in this together.
But there are times when I realize that I am called to be a leader, that I am your pastor. And there are many times that I feel like Moses in our first reading today. The day draws on, the battle is waging, and Moses begins to falter, his arms grow weak. He needs the support of his companions.
I need that support from you. I know you won’t agree with everything. I expect you to have questions. I am sure some of you have doubts about the wisdom of this vision.
Of course, we are buying a property and not waging a life-or-death battle so I don’t want to be melodramatic!
But let’s all be in this together! Let’s honor the past but never forget for a moment that God is steering us into the future. Thank you and God bless you!